Dakota Richline
“Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.”
― Carl Sagan, Cosmos

Kosmos 954 Nuclear Ethics

This essay was written for Introduction to Aerospace Engineering

Nuclear reactors and spacecraft require sound engineering for different reasons; failures in space can easily kill astronauts and random people, while nuclear failures can contaminate and render entire regions inhabitable. In 1977, a Soviet nuclear satellite deorbited and contaminated a strip of land hundreds of miles long. Multiple choices were made which could have led to disaster: orbit, launch vehicle, and mission profile. The Soviet Union’s carelessness ultimately led to a failure that cost multiple governments millions of dollars, and easily could have killed multiple people.

Kosmos 954 was Soviet spy satellite launched into LEO on a Tsyklon-2 ICBM in 1977. One of the 36 launches before Kosmos 954 failed, giving Tsyklon-2 a 2.7% failure rate at the time. Within four months of launch, the Soviet Union warned the US that the satellite was wildly varying its orbit and may fail to boost its nuclear reactor to a safe altitude. After completely losing control, orbital decay caused the reactor and satellite to uncontrollably reenter above northern Canada in December 1977. A 370 mile trail of debris was scattered along Canada’s Northwestern Territories, despite the USSR claiming the satellite was completely destroyed. During the cleanup—Operation Morning Light—multiple fatally radioactive pieces of debris were found, even though 99% of the initial weight of fuel was missing. The reconnaissance satellite’s total failure led to an uncontrolled deorbit and widespread radioactive contamination.

At least two NSPE guidelines were broken: Rules of Practice 1 and 3. Launching a nuclear reactor, especially on an unreliable launch vehicle, is a possible violation of rule 1: Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public. The launch site in Kazakhstan required the rocket to pass over a significant amount of land, which could be contaminated if the launch fails. Relying on the satellite’s ability to change the reactor’s orbit is an engineering failure; if it failed to reach a higher orbit for any reason, 110lb of enriched uranium could eventually be scattered somewhere on Earth when the orbit decays. Depending on available information, the USSR claiming that all the uranium was destroyed could be a violation of rule 3b: Engineers may express publicly technical opinions that are founded upon knowledge of the facts and competence in the subject matter. By handling nuclear materials irresponsibly during launch, in space, and after a failure, the Soviet Union failed its obligations to the public worldwide. For an engineering student, the takeaway should be to avoid single points of failure if possible, don’t trade an unethical amount of safety for performance, and don’t try to downplay dangerous mistakes after the fact.

Last modified: 10/25/2020