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   disaster was a reassuring 1 in 2700.

  

   The activists weren't having a bar of it. In the best tradition of

   modern American conflict resolution, they took their fight to the

   courts. The coalition of anti-nuclear and other groups believed

   America's National Aeronautics and Space Administration had

   underestimated the odds of a plutonium accident and they wanted a US

   District Court in Washington to stop the launch. The injunction

   application went in, and the stakes went up. The unprecedented hearing

   was scheduled just a few days before the launch, which had originally

   been planned for 12 October.

  

   For weeks, the protesters had been out in force, demonstrating and

   seizing media attention. Things had become very heated. On Saturday, 7

   October, sign-wielding activists fitted themselves out with gas masks

   and walked around on street corners in nearby Cape Canaveral in

   protest. At 8 a.m. on Monday, 9 October, NASA started the countdown

   for the Thursday blast-off. But as Atlantis's clock began ticking

   toward take-off, activists from the Florida Coalition for Peace and

   Justice demonstrated at the centre's tourist complex.

  

   That these protests had already taken some of the shine off NASA's bold

   space mission was the least of the agency's worries. The real headache

   was that the Florida Coalition told the media it would `put people on

   the launchpad in a non-violent protest'.3 The coalition's director,

   Bruce Gagnon, put the threat in folksy terms, portraying the protesters

   as the little people rebelling against a big bad government

   agency. President Jeremy Rivkin of the Foundation on Economic Trends,

   another protest group, also drove a wedge between `the people' and

   `NASA's people'. He told UPI, `The astronauts volunteered for this

   mission. Those around the world who may be the victims of radiation

   contamination have not volunteered.'4

  

   But the protesters weren't the only people working the media. NASA

   knew how to handle the press. They simply rolled out their

   superstars--the astronauts themselves. These men and women were, after

   all, frontier heroes who dared to venture into cold, dark space on

   behalf of all humanity. Atlantis commander Donald Williams didn't hit

   out at the protesters in a blunt fashion, he just damned them from an

   aloof distance. `There are always folks who have a vocal opinion about

   something or other, no matter what it is,' he told an interviewer. `On

   the other hand, it's easy to carry a sign. It's not so easy to go

   forth and do something worthwhile.'5

  

   NASA had another trump card in the families of the heroes. Atlantis

   co-pilot Michael McCulley said the use of RTGs, Radioisotope

   Thermoelectric Generators--the chunks of plutonium in the lead

   boxes--was a `non-issue'. So much so, in fact, that he planned to have

   his loved ones at the Space Center when Atlantis took off.

  

   Maybe the astronauts were nutty risk-takers, as the protesters

   implied, but a hero would never put his family in danger. Besides the

   Vice-President of the United States, Dan Quayle, also planned to watch

   the launch from inside the Kennedy Space Center control room, a mere

   seven kilometres from the launchpad.

  

   While NASA looked calm, in control of the situation, it had beefed up

   its security teams. It had about 200 security guards watching the

   launch site. NASA just wasn't taking any chances. The agency's

   scientists had waited too long for this moment. Galileo's parade would