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Saturday, June 9, 2012

(and we’re bringing another one home to you)

Almost everyone who was alive a generation ago in 1970 remembers watching the incredibly tense flight of Apollo 13; and those born after have probably seen the 1995 movie. This seventh Apollo mission was planned to be the third Moon landing by U.S. astronauts. The Mission Commander was James Lovell. He and Lunar Module Pilot Fred Haise were to land on the Moon’s surface while Jack Swigert orbited above. Haise and Swigert were spaceflight rookies.
Three days into the mission, and 200,000 miles from Earth, while conducting routine “stirring” of an oxygen tank, the tank exploded. It caused extensive damage to the Command Module forcing the crew to use the Lunar Module as their lifeboat. No Moon landing was now possible; and the astronauts’ safe return to Earth seemed like a slim hope as electrical power and water were critically low. The ingenuity and training of both the crew and ground support people led to radical makeshift repairs to the craft in flight. It reentered Earth atmosphere three days later to the relief of people following the drama around the world.
The three astronauts were safe, but here is a part of the story you may not know. Since no Moon landing was attempted, the Lunar Module was still attached to the main Command Module. The Lunar Module was jettisoned just before reentry and burned up in the atmosphere. But it carried a device, planned to be left behind on the Moon, which did not burn up. It survived to crash into South Pacific waters near Fiji. It is called an “RTG”, a Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator.
An RTG is a nuclear device that acts as the power plant for operations on the Moon. RTG’s could pose a risk of radioactive contamination if the container holding the fuel leaks. There are seven known accidents involving satellites and space vehicles carrying RTG’s (5 Russian, 2 American). The RTG is filled with Plutonium-238 which has a radioactive half-life of only 88 years. This is the good news. But it is 275 times more toxic than other Plutonium isotopes, the bad news. The fuel can irradiate biological tissue if ingested (or inhaled) and must be kept cool and within its container.
The nuclear material from Apollo 13 will remain radioactive for the next 2,000 years. The container the Plutonium-238 is housed in is expected to remain viable for the next 870 years. You can do the math.
The U.S. Government has conducted atmospheric and seawater sampling since the device entered the ocean and has determined that the container is intact and is not leaking; and that no release of Plutonium-238 should occur. But anytime the government says “no problem” or “there is nothing to worry about”, that starts us worrying. While it’s not time to panic, what do you think about this?

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