The public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything. Except what is worth knowing. Journalism, conscious of this, and having tradesman-like habits, supplies their demands. ~ Oscar Wilde

The Sydney Morning Herald is carrying at the moment, as one of the ‘Editor’s Picks’, this story which salaciously promises to reveal to the world the ‘dirty little secret’ behind the Mars rover Curiosity. It’s a shabby piece of hyperactive journalism from the blog of writer Geoff Brumfiel and echoed back through Slate, which essentially uses hyperbole and paranoia to try to spin the fact that Curiosity is powered by nuclear fuel into some kind of meaningful comment on… oh, I don’t even know what the point is supposed to be.1

As mostly anyone with any acumen understands, Curiosity uses nuclear power to implement its science, unlike its smaller cousins Opportunity and Spirit which were/are powered by solar cells.2 Solar power is great for space missions where you don’t need to do anything too hefty, but it has limitations, especially in the outer solar system where sunlight is feeble, or in circumstances where you wish to deploy energy-intensive instruments like Curiosity’s ChemCam laser. The problem is that the fuel required for Curiosity’s tiny reactor, Plutonium 238, is not manufactured in the US any longer, and so a small amount of it has been acquired by NASA from Russia for the exclusive purpose of powering space craft (a legacy of the old Soviet Union’s now decommissioned nuclear weapons program is that a stock of Pu-238 still exists in storage).

The main thrust of Brumfiel’s article, then, is that Curiosity is nuclear powered and that its nuclear fuel comes from the manufacture of Evil Russian Nuclear Weapons. Well, to an extent that’s sort of true – for whatever relevance that has. Pu-238 can be garnered during the manufacture of the Pu-239 that is used for for nuclear weapons (and this is how the Russians made it) but it is actually an opportunistic re-use of the unused isotopes of the process – you can make Pu-238 without making bombs. It’s just that if you are making bombs anyway, you may as well use the waste for something useful.

Physicist Luke Weston, from the University of Melbourne, puts it like this:

[To make Pu-238] you need uranium targets, production reactors, preferably high flux reactors, and radiochemical processing facilities, so traditionally it has been sort of piggybacked onto the existing infrastructure at the weapons labs, but no, it’s not really a “byproduct”.

NASA doesn’t particularly want to get the Pu-238 from the Russians and would like to control its manufacture in the US, but, Luke continues:

There has been a fight between NASA and DOE over the last couple of years regarding who should pay for the restart of USA Pu-238 production capacity – NASA says DOE should continue to do it, because DOE has the facilities and expertise, but Congress refuses to allow it to come out of DOE budgets – and as a result, planetary science right now and in the near future is suffering.

So, by using the Russian Pu-238, NASA is merely being pragmatic. Let’s be clear here – the stuff is already in existence. If it’s not being used for something, it’s just sitting on a shelf.3 We can’t unmake it.4

Geoff Brumfiel doesn’t think we should see it like that, however. He provocatively reminds us just how irresponsible the Russians were with their nuclear weapons manufacture, and how awful the ramifications were and then colourfully declares:

A few pounds of Stalin’s finest plutonium-238 hitched a ride to Mars on the back of Curiosity.

This kind of journalism is not helpful, enlightening or germane. It’s just grubbing around in the dirt for tawdry titillation and Mr Brumfiel should be truly ashamed of himself for doing it. It’s hardly even worthy of the Daily Mail.

Let me try to illustrate the logical sleight-of-hand being played out here.

This week, we saw the death of astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first human to set foot on the surface of another world. Armstrong’s passing was universally mourned. If we were so inclined, however, we could point out that NASA and Armstrong were aided in their grand lunar endeavour by the rocket propulsion systems designed for the Nazis in World War 2 by Wernher Von Braun – rockets meant for the express purpose of raining down death and destruction on terrified English citizens. Von Braun, in his post-war role as NASA’s chief scientist in the Saturn V program (having been famously and clandestinely ‘acquired’ after the war by the US military to help with their rocket science), designed the rocket engines that launched Apollo 11 into space and carried it to the moon. To attempt to portray the Apollo moon missions in this way sounds petty and stupid and pathetic, and yet, this is the very same kind of tactic used by Geoff Brumfiel in the Curiosity article, which has been circulated around the world and now warrants the ‘editor’s pick’ in the SMH. We can even extrapolate further: Curiosity also used the very same Nazi rocket technology that underpinned the Saturn V program to get to Mars, but Brumfiel is not telling that story here. Why? Because even people with zero science education would spot it for the irrelevant and egregious nonsense it is. Oh, and it doesn’t have the scary spectre of nookyular to juice it up.

Geoff Brumfiel claims that he is ‘as happy as anyone’ that Curiosity is on Mars, something I find disingenuous given the hand-wavingly hysterical tone of his article. He finishes up:

There’s nothing wrong with oooh-ing and aaah-ing over Curiosity’s photos. The project is an incredible achievement, and the science it produces will be amazing. But remember this, too: That little rover on Mars has left a big mess back here on Earth.

This kind of bereft backwards logic makes me furious. No, Mr Brumfiel – the fact is that when that nuclear material was made, a trip to the Red Planet by a mobile science lab with a computer brain was very much the stuff of science fiction. Trying to brand NASA or Curiosity with the responsibility for any ‘mess’ made by decades-old nuclear programs is vapid sensationalist rubbish dressed up in wilful scare-mongering.

At this point in time, when the world is in desperate need of better understanding of science, what it truly doesn’t need is silly Frankenstein’s Monster-style journalism masquerading as science commentary. Thanks Geoff Brumfiel, and Slate, for adding to the huge oxygen-depleted ocean of dreck-filled sludge that is slowly sucking us back into the Middle Ages.

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Thanks to Jo Benhamu for spotting the article and for Luke Weston for allowing me to quote from his comments.

  1. The tone of the article reminds me of nothing so much as a dinner guest pointing out to his convivial companions – for the express reason of making himself the centre of attention by being contrary – that people are starving in Africa. There are people who seem to compulsively feel the need to attempt to suck the life out of the joy & inspiration of others. []
  2. Contrary to the implication on Brumfiel’s blog, NASA has not tried to ‘cover up’ this fact in any way whatsoever. It’s easily available with all the other information about the Mars Science Lab, on the Curiosity site. []
  3. Arguably being somewhat of a problem. []
  4. Seriously: what’s A BETTER way to use the stuff? Anyone? []