Thursday, January 19, 2006

Pluto / Plutonium

The New Horizons probe is now on its way to Pluto. But don't hold your breath. The flyby isn't until July 14, 2015. Hey, Pluto is really, really far, ok? So mark your calendars, and it's never too early to start planning a party. Extra points awarded for creative Pluto+Bastille Day combo parties, since I don't know how one would make the two things go together. But then, I've never been much of a party planner, myself. I know that if you're having people over, and you'll be watching a sporting event on TV, you should always buy more beer than you think you'll need, because you'll need it. But theme parties are beyond my area of expertise, I'm afraid.

Anyway, I admit I have mixed feelings about the whole plutonium RTG thing. On one hand, I'm a total space geek, so I think getting a close look at Pluto is worth doing, and it's clear there's no other way to power the thing that far from the sun. On the other, I'm not exactly a big fan of nuclear power or nuclear weapons. It's hard to reconcile the two things. I'm far from alone in being nervous about the whole thing, although a lot of the criticism seems to be people reacting on a purely emotional level. On the other side, vocal nuclear proponents really give me the creeps. These are the same guys who in 1958 were telling us the atom was Our Friend, and like all friends, Mr. Atom was absolutely safe in all respects, and would solve all of our problems for us, leading to a perfect atomic utopia. Eventually we'd all be flying nuclear jetpacks to work, even vacuum cleaners would have cute lil' reactors built in, and there was absolutely no possible downside to the whole enterprise. It's not like they've got a stellar track record. These are not people whose reassurances are very reassuring. It's also noteworthy that producing RTGs is an occasional side hobby for the country's nuclear weapons labs, when they're not busy making bombs.

So I don't have any easy answers, and I doubt there are any. One way out of the dilemma is to say that it's ok because RTGs don't involve a huge amount of plutonium, which is true, but in the end this is something of a cop out. Where do you draw the line, exactly? Putting actual reactors in space rather than RTGs? Possibly. If we're going to split hairs, that may be the right place to do it, but we'd still be splitting hairs.

Another line of reasoning would be to say "whew, no accident this time", and forget about the whole thing until next time around, which I think is going to be the Mars Science Laboratory rover scheduled to launch in 2009. Again, this is just a way to avoid the issue, not to address it.

I guess what I'm looking for is a way to rationalize a narrow category of things I personally think are worthwhile, without altering up my general aversion to the stuff. Consistency is great, when you can get it, but human beings are always bundles of conflicting impulses, so perhaps all I can do is shrug my shoulders, admit the two things don't (and won't) fit together any more than Pluto and Bastille Day do, and just accept it.

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