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JIM LEHRER: Good evening. Something scary happened yesterday, something science fiction buffs have been telling us for years was going to happen. A satellite with a nuclear reactor aboard fell out of the sky. The damage was apparently more psychic than physical. The Russian craft, known as Cosmos 954, re-entered the atmosphere over the wildest country of Canada`s Northwest Territories, all of it disintegrating into magnificent, but harmless, balls of fire before anything hit the ground. Surveillance crews were unable today to even find a trace -- debris on the ground, or radioactivity in the air. But that may not be the end of the story. What about all those other nine hundred-plus satellites still zinging around up there in space? Why wasn`t the public told about what was going on? Well, tonight, a look at those and other questions thrown into real-world orbit by the saga of Cosmos 954. Robert MacNeil is off; Charlayne Hunter-Gault is in New York. Charlayne?
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Jim, the mysterious crisis in outer space provoked an intense kind of crisis here on earth. It was all very hush-hush so as to avoid creating public panic and hysteria, but telephones were ringing urgently in capitals all over the world as top United States officials tried to find out from the Soviets what was going on and alert nations that might be endangered by an unguided spacecraft headed toward them.
LEHRER: Cosmos 954 was a spy. Its mission was to relay pictures of U.S. and other naval movements back to Soviet intelligence. It began its work uneventfully on September 18, when it was launched two days after its sister ship, Cosmos 952. The two of them went into orbit at 150 miles above the earth. They both went about their business with no problems until around Christmas, going around two thirds of the earth every two weeks. Then, on December 26, the Soviets sent 952 up to a parking spot some 600 miles from earth, a routine Soviet procedure for safely discarding used satellites. A few days later 954 was radioed to do the same thing, but it didn`t happen.
HUNTER-GAULT: U.S. space trackers had noticed in early December that Cosmos 954 was slowing down and dropping. In early January within ten days it had fallen from 150 miles above earth to a hundred miles. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski called in Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin and expressed concern about the possibility of radioactive debris falling on populated areas. Two days later Dobrynin responded and Brzezinski was reassured, but not fully. On January 17, Brzezinski asked for more reassurance, especially that the satellite would not cause a nuclear_ explosion when it returned to earth. The Russian insisted that White House fears were unfounded, but the Carter administration informed Congressional leaders about the situation and on January 18 secretly told NATO allies about the potential risk.
LEHRER: Meanwhile, back in space, Cosmos 954`s day of reckoning was approaching. U.S. trackers using very sophisticated computers, predicted that it would re-enter the earth`s atmosphere at around 6:50 a.m. on January 24. There was only one flaw in the otherwise perfect prediction: they couldn`t say where exactly it was going to happen. Yesterday was indeed January 24. At around 6:50 a.m. -- 6:53, to be exact -- a Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman, Corporal Dennis Botterill, was making his rounds near Yellowknife in the Northwest Territory. He looked up, and by telephone today he told us what he saw.
Corp. DENNIS BOTTERILL, Royal Canadian Mounted Police: We were out on patrol and I was getting in the car with my partner there, and we looked up to the northwest and observed an object moving across the sky. It appeared to be quite low, possibly a couple of thousand feet high. It was moving almost parallel to where we were located. The leading edge on the object was a whitish color, then it tapered off into almost a fireball, and it had a tailing edge on it which appeared to be dropping material out of the sky or burning in the sky.
LEHRER: Now let`s put Cosmos 954 into some perspective, first just in terms of numbers. The U.S. Aerospace Defense Command says there are 4,546 manmade objects of various kinds floating around in space. They range from small cameras lost by astronauts to other big satellites tike Cosmos 954. The exact number of satellites is 939. Sixteen of those also have nuclear reactors on board. They all belong to the Soviets; U.S. satellites don`t use them. Back in 1965 the U.S. did send a nuclear powered satellite up as an experiment; it malfunctioned and now sits in a parking orbit that is supposed to last 4,000 years. That`s right, 4,000 years.
Now let`s go back to Cosmos 954, and talk to one of the few Americans who can honestly be called an expert on Soviet satellites. He`s Dr. Charles Sheldon, a scientist formerly with the Library of Congress research service, who wrote the only definitive study ever on the Cosmos satellites. Dr. Sheldon, let`s begin with some basics. Here`s a picture of the Cosmos satellite itself. First of all, how big is it? Can you give us some frame of reference there for how big that thing is?
CHARLES SHELDON: Well, we have not been given a picture of this particular Cosmos by the Russians. The one you have pictured is a much smaller object than the one that is involved in the news. This is one that weighs around 500 pounds, and the one which got into trouble is closer to 11,000 pounds, so it`s probably a different shape. Cosmos 954 is approximately forty-five feet long and perhaps seven feet in diameter. I suppose it`s probably a long cylinder with appropriate antennas mounted on it, or close to it.
LEHRER: All right. Now, what is the function of the nuclear reactor on the Soviet satellite?
SHELDON: The purpose of the nuclear reactor is to supply electric power to run the instrumentation and particularly the active radar, which is used to penetrate cloud cover and darkness in order to find ships on the surface of the sea.
LEHRER: I see. It`s just basically a power source, is that right?
SHELDON: That`s correct.
LEHRER: All right. There`s a built-in safety device in these Soviet satellites, is there not, so that in case there are problems there is some way to get rid of that nuclear reactor. What is that actual device? How does it work?
SHELDON: Well, the Russian approach is to try to arrange things so that there won`t be a problem, and their solution is to fire the payload at the end of its useful mission in such a way that...
LEHRER: The "payload," meaning the reactor?
SHELDON: The reactor portion of the whole payload, into a much higher orbit, one that`s about 600 miles up. And that should have a life on the order of 600 years. And so in the fifteen flights of the same kind prior to 954, each time it successfully was moved up to the higher position; this time it did not happen to. As I understand it -and I have nothing more to go on, because there are no blueprints - as I understand it, the Russians say they did design the thing so that if it did not move up that during the course of the normal decay and re-entry it would vaporize; and the knowledge that we have as of tonight is that that probably happened.
LEHRER:I see. But there was no special thing to make the thing explode, it`s that parking orbit idea that I laid out. For instance, its sister ship, 952, did in fact go to 600 miles. What`s your idea as to what malfunctioned?
SHELDON: Well, it`s hard to say what malfunctioned; again, all of us are relying largely upon scattered and sometimes contradictory news reports, but I get the impression from those reports that it may have been tumbling or was unstable, and if so, was not in a position that they could fire it to the higher orbit. If something`s tumbling and you fire the rocket, you don`t know where it`s going to go. You must have it stabilized before firing; that extra rocket.
LEHRER: All right. Now what are the basic differences between U.S. satellites and Soviet satellites as you`ve just described?
SHELDON: Satellites fulfill many purposes and have many kinds of power supplies. Perhaps you`re concerned at the moment primarily with power supplies.
LEHRER: Right.
SHELDON: Power supplies can be any one of four basic types: chemical batteries; and the disadvantage is, they run out rather quickly if you put heavy drains on them. Second system are solar panels, and that`s fine if you are going to have something up there for a long time...
LEHRER: And that`s what the United States uses primarily, is it not -- or extensively?
SHELDON: Mostly. But that is expensive, too, and for a short-life satellite is not the best of answers. The better answer for high amounts of power for a reasonable length of time is the fuel cell. This was very expensive to develop; the United States did develop it for the lunar program, so we have that in being, and we`ve not had the same need for nuclear reactors. The Soviet Union did not develop the fuel cell, so far as we know, for space purposes, and the nuclear reactor or some other nuclear device was the next way to get considerable amounts of power to run the radar.
LEHRER: In other words, you`re saying that the Soviets use nuclear reactors for economy reasons?
SHELDON: Any decision that engineers make is a combination of what they think is within the state of the art and the economics of the situation. From their point of view it was something they felt they could do; they were used to building reactors for many purposes, and they felt they could afford this, I`m sure.
LEHRER: All right. Finally, Dr. Sheldon, the question that the public has as it relates to Cosmos 954 and all those others that are still up there: what is the danger when one of these falls out of the sky, as 954 did?
SHELDON: Well, this is very hard to quantify because what we are really asking ourselves is a series of hypothetical questions -- under what circumstances? Suppose it came down intact, suppose it completely vaporized, suppose it came down in chunks. And where did it hit? Did it hit to the ocean, which is most typical; or in some remote part of the country; or in a city? And each of those has its own answer. The danger, of course, has to do with what are the statistical chances. Now, if one is the unfortunate statistic and the victim, that`s not much help. But looked at from the point of view of planning, the statistical answer is, the danger is rather slight.
LEHRER: Danger in terms of radioactivity, danger in terms of being hit by a piece of this, or just the whole danger?
SHELDON: The danger of being hit by it or being very close to the radioactivity. Should the radioactivity disperse as it is supposed to, then it`s really mixed up pretty much with the background radiation that surrounds all of us all the time anyway. I don`t think anyone`s in favor of spreading radioactivity. It`s an incidental product that comes from nuclear bomb tests, it`s an incidental product from the occasional accident such as this.
LEHRER: All right, thank you. Charlayne?
HUNTER-GAULT: The environmentalist`s perspective on the danger of the Cosmos 954 incident arises out of a concern for the potential impacts on public safety. One man who has spent a good deal of time studying nuclear safety is Richard Pollock, Director of Critical Mass, a Ralph Nader- organized consumer group. Mr. Pollock, Mr. Sheldon has said that the danger is hard to quantify. Do you feel that way, or do you feel that there was considerable danger?
RICHARD POLLOCK: I`ve been in touch with of course a number of federal agencies this afternoon -- with NASA, with the Department of Energy, the National Security Council -- and it`s my impression, after speaking to many of the different authorities who have surveyed this area, that it is very difficult to quantify an area that`s relatively new and unknown. Now, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission did undertake a number of risk analyses concerning fixed facilities such as nuclear reactors --one of them is called "Wash 740" -- and assuming that the size, the amount of uranium that was in this particular reactor, Cosmos 954, we calculate that it would be approximately one eightieth the amount of uranium that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission calculated a conventional nuclear reactor would actually have in its core. As a result, it`s our estimate that in fact we might have between forty fatalities if in fact there was direct exposure to the Cosmos satellite and as many as 400 latent cancer fatalities. Now, that of course is if individuals in, for example, a city like Chicago or Detroit or downtown Manhattan might come into direct contact with the satellite had it impacted there. It was very fortuitous, of course, that this particular facility landed in a very remote part of Western Canada. Had it actually collided or crashed into a densely populated urban area, the consequences could have been quite different.
HUNTER-GAULT: So from an environmentalist`s standpoint, and therefore the consumer, the public, you think there was a danger involved even though nothing happened. There`s something that gives you concern at this point.
POLLOCK: Absolutely concern. It`s very difficult to indicate whether or not there is going to be an actual hazard posed to the public in any given scenario. We can say that there was a potential risk to the public and one which the public should be well aware of. I might add that there were radioactive isotopes in the satellite which were released into the environment if in fact it was vaporized, if the spacecraft disintegrated as NASA and other authorities suggest.
HUNTER-GAULT: So you`re saying there`s some dust floating around up there somewhere that may be potentially harmful?
POLLOCK: That`s correct. There is, of course, cesium 137, strontium 89 and strontium 90, and iodine 131 -- at least four isotopes that the federal government has identified in relation to the Cosmos satellite.
HUNTER-GAULT: Well, what do you think should be done at this point?
POLLOCK: Well, I believe that the United States should of course avoid or perhaps even renounce the use of fissile materials in any satellites for power supply, and second I think the United States should initiate some type of international convention or treaty that might be able to ban the use of fissile materials as a power source for such satellites.
HUNTER-GAULT: You see a need to take some extraordinary means, so therefore can we assume that you feel the reaction to this whole matter has not been overblown?
POLLOCK: Well, I believe that the reaction of the Canadian officials has been particularly disturbing...
HUNTER-GAULT: In what way?
POLLOCK: Only in the sense that very early after the crash there were several categorical statements that were made by the Canadian Defense Minister, Mr. Dawson, indicating that there was ninety to ninety eight percent assurance that in fact the public would not be harmed by this material, and that was before there was any definitive results concerning the impact of this particular collision, or accident. We believe that very quickly the federal government in this country, and of course we`ve seen now in Canada, will be extremely eager to minimize the kinds of risks, even before all the data is in. So in terms of being prudent and cautious, we would urge that the government perhaps take a bit more of a pessimistic view of this particular incident and tell it like it is rather than cover it up, so to speak, or place the whole issue under the rug, as has been the experience previously with the Atomic Energy Commission in this country and its successor agency, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. But in general, I would say that this particular incident was handled well by federal officials internally but was handled very poorly in terms of interaction with state officials and with the news media and public at large.
HUNTER-GAULT: Don`t you think it might be a little difficult, considering some of the things that you have said and Mr. Sheldon has said as well about how hard it is to quantify some of thus? I mean, most of your reactions have been based on hypothetical things. Don`t you think it might be a little difficult to tell it like it really is?
POLLOCK: I think that the federal officials have a responsibility to explain both the uncertainties as well as the certainties. And I think that they`ve been too quick to inform the public of what they believe are the certainties and I think that they`ve been too often very mute about what the uncertainties are in a particular incident. We`ve discovered this not only in this particular incident but also in terms of fixed facilities -- nuclear power reactors -- and in the transportation of radioactive materials here in the United States.
HUNTER-GAULT: Thank you. Jim?
LEHRER: As Charlayne said earlier, most of the crisis control action here in the United States involving Cosmos 954 was centered in the National Security Council. The NSC declined to participate in our little discussion tonight, but fortunately a man who knows intimately how things operate over there is here. He`s Helmut Sonnenfeldt, a member of the NSC staff under Henry Kissinger, later counselor for Kissinger`s State Department. He`s now a Visiting Scholar at the School for Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Mr. Sonnenfeldt, the NSC in this case chose to keep Cosmos 954`s problems secret until it had actually re-entered the atmosphere. My question is this: shouldn`t the public have been told, "Hey, a satellite may be falling at 6:50 a.m. on Tuesday"?
HELMUT SONNENFELDT: Well, that`s one of those questions where you have to make a judgment, and I think the judgment, as Charlayne indicated in her very first remarks, was that until more was known about the fate of this particular satellite premature publicity might create all kinds of uneasiness and panic and that the most important thing was to take whatever steps might still be possible to prevent the thing from disintegrating and coming to earth at all. And I think that was a judgment call. I myself think it was the right one. There is ample opportunity now, as this show proves, to discuss the issues involved in great detail, and my impression is that the federal government will be more than forthcoming in doing that. But this sort of thing is a judgment call when a crisis hits you, and I think in this instance the decision was that they had better work quietly to see what could be done.
LEHRER: There`s a fine line, is there not, Mr. Sonnenfeldt, between what constitutes sounding an alarm and what constitutes sounding a legitimate alert? That`s the difficult question, is it not, in a situation like this?
SONNENFELDT: I think there is; I think if there had been a good deal of certainty that some population centers might be in danger here that probably something should have been said about it earlier, but I think once it became clear that there was a good possibility, that that was not the case, then I think the necessity for doing that was not particularly great. I think, as always happens when a surprising event occurs -- this is surprising not because it hadn`t been predicted as a category of events, but it was surprising as a particular event -- we learn from it, the public becomes much more conscious of it, and my guess is that if such a thing were ever to happen again, which I hope it won`t, the public alarm would be much less if there is some advance notice of it. But this would have been so novel, it would have been this magic mixture of satellites and nuclear energy...
LEHRER: The sky is falling, et cetera.
SONNENFELDT: And I think it could have produced quite a bit of panic.
LEHRER: All right. Moving on to another area that`s involved in all of this, don`t you find it rather bizarre that here we had Cosmos 954, a Russian satellite; as I said, its purpose was to spy on the United States naval. vessels and that sort of thing. And yet, during these last several days and weeks, as Charlayne just went through, the United States and the Soviet Union were cooperating, exchanging information. That sounds kind of weird, doesn`t it?
SONNENFELDT: Well, it sounds weird, but I think it`s also a typical demonstration of the strange age in which we live. We have a crowded world in many respects. The satellite world in space is crowded, relatively speaking; we have thousands of nuclear weapons pointed at each other; yet we`ve also made some agreements with the Russians, and the recognition that there could be accidents, that there could be possibly some unauthorized use, although it`s very unlikely, of a nuclear weapon, that there could be a misinterpretation of intentions, that an accident might be construed as a hostile act. And for that reason we`ve made certain agreements, as it happens not in this particular field but in certain other fields, to communicate very rapidly with each other if this should happen, to provide reassurance. And it is one of the paradoxes of this nuclear age and of the rival relationship that we have with the Soviet Union that there is a pragmatic interest in avoiding accidents. And so you go to work pragmatically to prevent them.
LEHRER: Were there any incidents similar to this where that communications network was used during your many years involved at the NSC and at the State Department?
SONNENFELDT: I don`t recall using it for what might be called a technical accident, but of course the hotline was used at one time or another in political crises, where it was important to try and avoid misunderstandings of intentions. So that has occurred. And there have been other instances where I think there have been discussions and communications between ambassadors and American officials when there was some event that seemed to be unexplained, that we had a problem about one of our satellites being blinded, and I think there was some concern that that was deliberate; and it turned out that apparently this had to do with a gas explosion.
I want to make one other comment about your reference to these things being spy satellites: that`s true of course; and we have them, and they have them. But one thing to remember about the spy satellites is that they also provide the one means that we have for controlling disarmament agreements. And they also, incidentally, serve very important economic purposes, for surveying and things of that sort. So they have many missions, even though this particular one had the mission you indicated.
LEHRER: All right. Let`s go back to a point that Mr. Pollock made, and I want to first put it to you, Dr. Sheldon: the government when something like this happens should first take the pessimistic view; in other words, that satellite or that whatever it is is guilty until proven innocent, was basically what Mr. Pollock was saying. Would you agree with that?
SHELDON: Well, if we`re talking about notice on the re-entry and so forth, before it was known rather precisely when it would coarse in, it could have fallen anywhere on earth, except for the North and South Pole, north or south of the equator over millions and millions of square miles of territory, mostly water. So it`s really very hard to get excited about something that inevitably was going to come in; it really was not a secret in the sense that it was withheld, it just wasn`t published generally because any of us who follow satellites have had it on an unclassified basis in many countries.
LEHRER: You knew about...?
SHELDON: Of course.
LEHRER: Did you know that it was coming down 6:50 a.m. on Tuesday?
SHELDON: Well, I was telephoned to the precise time, but the projection in advance it would come down is just a physical fact; if it would not move up to orbit it had to come down. The moment we knew what orbit it would come down on, it`s a very simple thing to make a plot and know the approximate path. And then if there is an error of a few minutes, then you know, well, will it come in the Queen Charlotte Islands or in Hudson Bay or somewhere in between? And it happened to be somewhere in between. But the risk would not be known until fairly late, a day or so in advance, as to the orbit precisely. And the exact point, of course, isn`t known until the event actually occurs. But I really don`t think there was that much secrecy about it -- secret only in a sense that the public has no incentive in advance of an event to follow things, and to stir up the whole world, I would agree, before we have any clues to which country, which ocean, which hemisphere will receive it.
LEHRER: I see. Mr. Sonnenfeldt, another point Mr. Pollock made was, why doesn`t the United States negotiate a treaty or an agreement with the Soviet Union saying, Hey, fellows, let`s don`t put any more nuclear reactors in space. Is that a realistic possibility?
SONNENFELDT: Oh, I think it`s worth considering. I think there is a problem of having power sources for these satellites; they perform a lot of important missions and require sources of power. We happen to have one that uses a different device that Dr. Sheldon can explain and I don`t fully understand, but doesn`t have the particular risk of a power reactor. I would think it`s probably not a very realistic idea to try and negotiate a treaty. My guess is, though, that the Russians will make an evaluation of this episode and will also look at what is the most effective and the least dangerous and the most efficient way of operating these things. But I would imagine it would be quite hard to negotiate a treaty.
LEHRER: Let me ask each one of you now briefly, do you think that anything is going to be done differently as a result of the falling of 954, or are we sitting here talking about an automobile accident, for all practical purposes, that`s going to soon go away? What do you think, Mr. Pollock?
POLLOCK: Well, first of all, I believe that it was extraordinary that not a single public state official knew about this particular incident. I think that the procedures for notification are going to be relaxed considerably. Many of the civil defense officials in this country, public health officials who are responsible for the health and safety in the state in the United States, were not notified and had there been an accident I think they would have wanted to know.
LEHRER: All right. I`m sorry gentlemen, we don`t have time for you to tell us how things are going to change. Thank you all very much. Good night, Charlayne. We`ll be back tomorrow night. I`m Jim Lehrer. Thank you and good night.
The MacNeil/Lehrer Report
Cosmos 954
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This episode features a discussion on Cosmos 954. The guests are Charles Sheldon, Richard Pollock Helmut Sonnenfeldt, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Patricia Ellis. Byline: Jim Lehrer
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Military Forces and Armaments
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Chicago: “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Cosmos 954,” 1978-01-25, National Records and Archives Administration, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed May 22, 2024,
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APA: The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Cosmos 954. Boston, MA: National Records and Archives Administration, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from