Orlando Sentinel

October 14, 1997

Cassini fans, foes face rising tension

By Seth Borenstein
of The Sentinel Staff

Published in The Orlando Sentinel, October 14, 1997

CAPE CANAVERAL -- Scientists' dreams of learning Saturn's secrets and protesters' nightmares of a plutonium-spewing rocket explosion return again early Wednesday.

A Titan IV-B rocket carrying NASA's Cassini space probe did not launch early Monday morning because of technical and weather problems. The launch is rescheduled for Wednesday at 4:43 a.m.

The delay prolongs the tension for two different groups.

Scientists and engineers, gathered with their families to watch the launch of a probe they have spent 15 years working on, had to keep bottles of champagne on ice. They wanted to see Cassini start a seven-year voyage to Saturn and its mysterious moon Titan.

Air Force Col. Doug Nowak, deputy operations commander at Cape Canaveral Air Station's 45th Space Wing, called the delay ``frustrating. We all want to see this go as soon as possible.''

Opponents, who earlier this month staged a peaceful protest at Cape Canaveral in which 27 people were arrested, were happy with the outcome. Most opponents avoided the launch site Monday for fear of being contaminated with plutonium in the event of a launch explosion.Just one anti-Cassini protester picketed the air station on Monday.

``We're going to use every minute of it to encourage people to keep calling the White House, keep calling their representatives,'' anti-Cassini organizer Julia Aires said from the group's Gainesville headquarters.

But she said it also means two more days to worry about what may happen if the rocket blows up. Cassini carries 72 pounds of deadly plutonium, the most launched into space.

The radioactive substance, encased in several layers of protective material, is dangerous if it is pulverized and inhaled. NASA maintains such a scenario is very unlikely because of the protective casing and because the plutonium is hardened into a ceramic form, reducing the chance that it can be reduced into breathable particles.

The problems Monday did not involve the plutonium.

A computer glitch on the space probe and a problem with a battery tester on the ground helped contribute to the delay, which mostly was weather-related.

``It was a myriad of all three things,'' NASA spokesman George Diller said. Wind was chief among them.

``The winds just blew you out of the ballgame,'' Nowak said.

An Air Force weather rule for all flights of the massive Titan rockets prohibits launches if winds would blow debris into populated areas. Another wind issue concerns a potential toxic cloud that could form after an accident because of the noxious fuel that powers the Titan. However, that was not a factor in the decision to delay the launch.

If the rocket had exploded 30 seconds or so after launch, winds eight miles above the surface would have sent rocket parts raining down on parts of

Cape Canaveral Air Station and Kennedy Space Center where 400 people were stationed. That wind should shift east toward the ocean by Wednesday, officials said.

The launch first was delayed an hour because the Air Force launch team was running behind in getting the Titan ready.

Then the Air Force found it had to replace battery-testing equipment on the ground. Finally, Cassini's own internal computer control showed some kind of software problem. That software could have been fixed after launch, Diller said.

By the time those problems had added up, the Air Force had already loaded fuel onto the rocket's Centaur upper stage -- a secondary rocket that gives Cassini another boost into space.

When the call was made to scrub the flight, that fuel had to be drained from the rocket, forcing a 48-hour delay.

If the rocket doesn't launch by Nov. 4, the alignment of the planets will change and add up to 17 months to the journey. Such a delay would add tens of millions of dollars to the $3.3 billion mission, officials said.

Compliments of Proposition One Committee