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1995 The Year That Was/Untold Story

Lucky Apollo & A Little Nuke Problem

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The LEM. The heat shield. Those pesky oxygen tanks. Thanks to Apollo 13, we know all about the components that were critical to the astronauts’ survival. But what about the component that was critical to our survival? Left out of the film — but not NASA’s calculations — was SNAP-27, a mini-nuclear generator aboard the lunar excursion module that was meant to power experiments on the moon. With the LEM as the crew’s refuge in space, NASA had 8.3 pounds of low-grade plutonium heading for a risky reentry to mother ship Earth—enough to afflict, ”on the very, very conservative side, millions of people with lung cancer,” says journalist Karl Grossman.

”The Atomic Energy Commission people were worried that it might hit something and spread radioactivity all over,” says Apollo 13’s commander, Jim Lovell, who has been fielding questions on the subject since a September article in The Nation, cowritten by Grossman, reminded the world of the danger. Lovell says the AEC’s ”fears were unfounded because the ceramic cask [containing the plutonium] was designed to withstand the reentry, which it did.”

Nonetheless, why didn’t the SNAP-27, which now lies in the South Pacific’s Tonga Trench, receive a mention in Apollo 13? Was it just too.explosive? ”I’m not interested in the politics of it,” says producer Brian Grazer. Coscripter William Broyles Jr. claims the fate of the world wasn’t on their radar. ”It never even occurred to us,” he says. ”We had so much other stuff.”