Healing Our World Commentary: Will We Ever Go Where No One Has Gone Before?

By Jackie Alan Giuliano, Ph.D.

Will We Ever Go Where No One Has Gone Before?

The world is a sacred vessel
Not to be acted upon.
Whoever acts upon it
destroys it.
Whoever grasps it
loses it.

-- Lao Tzu (from the Tao Te Ching)

I spent nearly 20 years working in America’s space program. At the time, I saw it as a grand dream, an opportunity for humanity to unite in the exploration of the universe. I defended the expenditures, pointing out the dramatic benefits that could be derived from finding a common cause for the Earth’s people.

But tragically, as with nearly everything touched by the U.S. government, waste on a grand scale came to rule the land. I found I could no longer support an enterprise that condoned the intentional destruction of multi-million dollar spacecraft and the wanton pollution of other worlds in our solar system.

Once again the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), ironically, while under intense criticism for the vast cost overruns of the International Space Station program, has decided to prematurely end the life of one of the human race’s grandest achievements.

Later this year, controllers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA’s lead center for the robotic exploration of the Solar System, and the facility where I spent many years, will upload the last command sequence to the Galileo spacecraft. Launched on October 18, 1989, the Galileo craft has been in orbit around the gas giant Jupiter since 1995, sending back incredible pictures and data, advancing our knowledge of our neighborhood in space. The program cost $1.4 billion.

earth and moon

On December 16, 1992, the Galileo spacecraft looked back from a distance of about 6.2 million kilometers (3.9 million miles) to capture this view of the Moon in orbit about Earth. (Photos courtesy NASA)
Because funding technically runs out next year, NASA will not only stop communicating with this amazing, and expensive, machine, but it will intentionally crash it into the atmosphere of Jupiter in September 2003, dispersing its power source of 15.6 kilograms (34.4 pounds) of radioactive plutonium-238 and other hazardous wastes, around that giant planet.

Even though the heat from the plutonium would keep generating power for the craft for many years, once the propellant used to point the spacecraft at Earth runs out, commands could no longer be sent and data could not be received. The propellant is running out, but the timing of this ending is because of budgetary shortsightedness, not real needs.

Besides the incredible waste of prematurely destroying a craft that took years to build and to travel to another world, we are once again spreading our pollution to worlds about which we know very little.

spacecraft

Galileo is deployed from the space shuttle Atlantis October 18, 1989.
One of my few television indulgences these days, after my eight month old son goes to bed, is watching the latest series in the Star Trek saga, “Enterprise.” Watching it these last few weeks has reminded me of the grand ideals that I and my colleagues entered the space program to achieve. The inspiring television tales of the first steps of humans off of the Earth have been a sharp contrast to the stark reality of the real life space program, a program fraught with lack of direction and monumentally ludicrous choices.

Galileo has been in orbit around Jupiter more than three times longer than its originally planned mission. The spacecraft has survived about three and a half times as much exposure to radiation from Jupiter's radiation belts as it was designed to withstand. It has taken 33 loops around Jupiter, flying near the closest moon, Io, six times and near the other three of Jupiter's planet-sized moons - Europa, Ganymede and Callisto - a total of 27 times.

The Galileo spacecraft’s prime mission was to spend two years studying Jupiter, its moons and its magnetic environment. When that original mission ended in December 1997, it was followed by a two year extended mission, scheduled to end in January 2000. The mission was extended again.

While NASA tries to make these extensions sound like gifts that have already made use of a spacecraft living beyond its expected lifetime, they are actually the result of the budget battles that constantly go on in Congress. Rather than seek approval for what is the true life of the mission, NASA budgeters play the game by only asking for a couple of years funding at a time, hoping for a more favorable budget climate when that end of mission comes. This philosophy has contributed to the astronomical cost overruns of the space station program.

I worked on the Galileo mission before it was launched, and we all knew it would last beyond the two years Congress was being asked to fund. It was hard to constantly manipulate the truth by telling the outside world that the spacecraft mission was only two years long. We all knew that were weren’t going to be spending 10 years building the spacecraft and taking six years to get to Jupiter, and spending hundreds of millions of dollars to just take data for two years. We knew that NASA would get more money when that time was up. But the game was afoot and unstoppable.

Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer Robert Gounley said in an article about the mission, “By 2004 or so, the gas gauge will read empty and Galileo will become a free-floater, unable to change course. Chances are, it will orbit around Jupiter for millions of years without incident. Galileo, however, was not sterilized during its assembly. A few traces of terrestrial life might yet endure in some of the more heavily shielded electronics bays. There is the possibility, difficult to quantify, that someday Galileo will collide with Europa and leave traces of terrestrial life there.”

Since oceans have been discovered beneath the frozen ice of Jupiter’s moon Europa, suggesting the possibility of the early beginnings of life, these concerns sound worth noting.

But while the concerns about contaminating Europa with Earth microbes are interesting, even though the possibility of the spacecraft making it there on its own are remote, it is disappointing that NASA doesn’t have any concern about dumping plutonium or our space junk around the Solar System.

Project scientists would say, of course, that adding the plutonium to Jupiter’s atmosphere will make no difference. But such a statement reveals the constant inconsistencies in how science is practiced today. The reality is that scientists have no better idea of what the implications of dumping plutonium into Jupiter’s atmosphere are than they do of what affect some Earth microbes might have on Europa.

But humans will always pick the “truth” that corresponds the closest to their desired objectives.

NASA and JPL project managers look at the environmental assessment process and any comments from the public about spreading our waste in space as a bother and an annoyance. It shows in their documents and in their discussions. I have sat in many meetings where the public has been called "stupid" and the environmental assessment process has been called a big waste of time and money.

Jupiter

A NASA created composite of Galileo images from the Jovian system, includes the edge of Jupiter with its Great Red Spot, and Jupiter's four largest moons. From top to bottom, the moons shown are Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.
Also, engineers are trained to downplay risks. They consider a risk of one in a million insignificant. But to a lay person who has seen the results of thousands of environmental accidents where the risk was supposedly very low, one in a million seems quite possible. Engineers love to manipulate statistics.

This won’t be the first time we have ended the life of a spacecraft prematurely and dumped our toxic junk on another world. In 1998, the Lunar Prospector spacecraft was crashed on the Moon, looking for water. It didn't find any water, but it left behind smashed spacecraft remains. Although its power source is provided by batteries charged by sunlight, those nickel-cadmium batteries now littering the Moon's surface are classified as a hazardous waste on the Earth.

In 1994, controllers crashed the Magellan spacecraft into Venus when the money ran out, although the spacecraft had considerable life left in it.

And the future Europa Orbiter plans to crash its nine kilograms of plutonium on Jupiter's moon Europa, the very moon Galileo scientists want to protect, a moon that could harbor the beginnings of life. NASA will protect another world from Earth microbes, but has no problem spreading deadly nuclear material around.

Of course, how can we get anyone to be concerned about the possible harmful effects of dumping our radioactive waste on other worlds when modern science condones illness, cancers, and even deaths if they advance a technology or turn a profit. Our culture has made it OK to release a drug if the side effects "only" kill two percent of the users under certain circumstances.

NASA’s new administrator should clean up the sloppy goal selection process for space exploration missions and insist that future mission designs include ways to stop spreading our hazardous waste around the Solar System.

Otherwise, future space explorers will find worlds contaminated in ways we can’t possibly imagine. Maybe the Star Trek mantra needs to be changed to “boldly go where no one has trashed or polluted before.” That, it turns out, will be a much more difficult mission.

RESOURCES

1. Find out who your Congressional representatives are and e-mail them. Tell them NASA’s space exploration goals, objectives, and policies need to be cleaned up. We must stop polluting other worlds. If you know your Zip code, you can find them at: http://www.visi.com/juan/congress/ziptoit.html.

2. Voice your concerns to:

3. Visit the Galileo Project website at: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/galileo/index.html

4. Read more about Galileo’s last mission at: http://www.space.com/scienceastronomy/solarsystem/galileo_camera_020117.html

5. See other Healing Our World commentaries on space exploration environmental issues at:

{Jackie Alan Giuliano, Ph.D. is a writer and teacher in Seattle. He can be found looking skyward (when it’s not raining), wondering if we will ever stop trashing our world – and the worlds around us. Please send your thoughts, comments, and visions to him at jackie@healingourworld.com and visit his web site at: http://www.healingourworld.com}