Judge Pondering Request for Delay in Saturday Shuttle Launch
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Environmentalists argued in court Thursday that NASA is so anxious to get Saturday’s space shuttle mission under way that it is ignoring the danger that would be posed by radioactivity escaping from a launch accident.
″We seek a delay today because safety concerns were not addressed,″ said Andrew C. Kimbrell, representing the Florida Coalition for Peace and Justice, which is trying to delay the liftoff for at least a year.
U.S. District Judge Oliver Gasch said only that he will let the lawyers know when he has reached a decision. As a practical matter, the ruling is expected Friday.
The countdown is proceeding at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for the 7:35 a.m. EDT Saturday launch of Discovery, which is carrying a nuclear- powered probe in its cargo bay. The Discovery crew is to release the probe, which is designed to go into orbit around the sun.
The launch will be the first of a shuttle in more than five months. Fuel leaks three times have halted the launch of Columbia and delayed the flight of Atlantis.
Gasch turned down a similar request last year and the Galileo space probe, with nearly 50 pounds of deadly plutonium-238, was sent on a six-year trip to Jupiter.
″What is different about this case?″ the judge asked Kimbrell.
″These fuel leaks did not exist when we argued Galileo,″ Kimbrell said. He called NASA ″an agency that is frankly in crisis.″
Kimbrell insisted that NASA understated the chances of an accident similar to the 1986 Challenger explosion, which claimed the lives of seven astronauts.
″We are saying, ‘Why not a 13-month delay?’ but NASA refuses even to look at it for the sake of the safety of the astronauts, the safety of the public.″ The environmentalists claim a release of just 10 percent of Ulysses’ plutonium scattered in an accident could cause cancer in 34,000 people near the launch site.
To Kimbrell’s argument that NASA had not tested Discovery for hydrogen fuel leaks, Justice Department lawyer Rebecca Donnellan said, ″The only effective tests of the system can be done when loading liquid hydrogen. Only at that point can you be sure you don’t have a hydrogen leak.″
She said a 13-month delay - until a time when Earth, Jupiter and the sun are in proper alignment again - would cost the government more than $350 million.
To that, Kimbrell replied that the Office of Technology Assessment estimated the cost of the cleanup after the Challenger accident at $15 billion.
″The sun has been here for a while; the sun will be here for a while longer,″ he said.