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Net drives debate on NASA launch

As NASA prepares to launch a nuclear-powered space probe to Saturn, the Internet has become a major force in driving debate over the controversial mission.

As NASA prepares to launch a nuclear-powered space probe on a ten-year mission to Saturn, opponents and supporters of the mission are calling the Internet a major force in driving debate over the controversial mission.

The Cassini space probe is scheduled to launch October 13 fueled for its mission with 72 pounds of plutonium dioxide, the most ever taken into space. Opponents of the mission say that the risk of nuclear contamination from a Cassini accident, either during its launch or on its flyby encounter with Earth, outweighs the benefits of exploring Saturn. NASA and other Cassini backers say that risk is minimal.

Noting that previous launches of plutonium-powered spacecraft have met with far less public outcry, NASA spokesperson Don Savage said, "I think the key difference is possibly that the Internet is available now, and this extends the number of people that can spread the word and get discussions going. A lot more people are hearing about it than would have through the traditional media, which is the way we normally get out our information to the largest number of people."

Internet activity has centered around the official Cassini site, numerous sites by Cassini opponents, and newsgroups as varied as sci.space.policy, alt.current-events.usa, alt.peace, alt.sci.planetary, soc.rights.human, alt.activism, rec.models.rockets, and alt.prophecies.nostradamus.

With the Cassini mission, two emerging functions of the Internet are dovetailing, as the government makes yet another high-profile space mission accessible to millions of Internet users, and as a controversy of international proportions is not only debated but also shaped online.

Cassini opponents are portraying the Internet as their last hope in an attempt to stop the launch. "We only have until October 13, so the only way we're going to stop this is through the Internet," said Russell Hoffman, Webmaster of the largest anti-Cassini site. Cassini opposition has used the speed of the Net to its advantage, according to Hoffman. "The Internet has accelerated, compressed what would have been a ten-year battle into a matter of months."

But Savage, repeating a frequent criticism of online information, says that when it has come to describing the mission and its risks online, accuracy has not kept pace with speed.

"I have seen a number of sites that have on them either totally incorrect or very misleading information," he said. "I think it's unfortunate that people are getting scared because they don't know what the facts are but are reading stuff they see on the Web."

NASA has responded to what it considers exaggerated fears with a section on its site devoted to the nuclear safety issue. Traffic to that part of the site accounts for 4 percent of its hits, which have totaled 200,000 per day in the past week or so.

"We've had a lot of good feedback from people who have told us that they didn't realize some of the factual background before they saw it on the Web page," said Frank O'Donnell, spokesperson for the California Institute of Technology's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

Despite concerns about what NASA considers to be misinformation circulating in newsgroups and anti-Cassini Web sites, O'Donnell praised the Net as a boon to his agency.

"From our perspective, the Net has become a really wonderful tool for getting out information on JPL space missions," he said. "We've had billions of hits on our servers since we went online and it's completely changed the way we've done business in terms of the way we've gotten information to the public."

Meanwhile, newsgroup users are debating the mission on the basis of everything from mission procedures to basic science and the prophecies of Nostradamus.

"Fling plutonium around in rockets? Not a good idea," one Cassini opponent wrote in a message cross-posted to numerous groups. "We can and should conduct our scientific explorations, but WITHOUT NUKES! We are taking way too many serious risks with the health of our planet..."

"Cassini carries an RTG battery, which is simply a piece of metal that gives off natural heat, which is then converted to electricity," responded a mission supporter. "The Cassini RTG is a 100 percent safe and effective power source that poses no risk whatsoever to anyone. RTG batteries have been carried on a number of other spacecraft, including Apollo 13, and despite several spacecraft accidents, no RTG has ever failed in any manner."

The more mystically minded are having their say as well. "There are many Quatrains relate to Cassini project in my thought [sic]," wrote one user in alt.prophecies.nostradamus. "In particular in Quatrain 9,72: 'Saturn two three cycles completed.' This may means the cycles of the Cassini's fly [sic]. We'd better translate N's prophecy more and more to find out Cassini's satanic project."