A LARGE piece of radioactive space junk, on a collision course with heavily populated southeast Queensland nearly 20 years ago, triggered an emergency response that went all the way to the White House.
But the public was blissfully unaware it was happening.
It may sound like an Armageddon-style film plot, but former Queensland premier Rob Borbidge this week revealed how it played out in Brisbane’s Executive Building building two decades ago.
And former Prime Minister John Howard remembers it too.
Mr Borbidge said he had just met the patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church, who had flown in from Turkey, and had to leave him to activate a full-scale emergency response.
He did not warn his family of the impending danger — or even tell the church leader he met at the airport.
“It was one of those things you don’t want to make an announcement over something and scare people in regards to something that may not happen — and you can’t do anything about anyway,” he said.
“The Prime Minister (then Mr Howard) had just had a call from the US president. It was Bill Clinton at that stage.
“There was an out-of-control satellite, which was basically going to re-enter over southern Queensland, and could cause very considerable damage.”
The satellite was Russia’s Mars 96 Orbiter, which was fuelled with 200g of plutonium when it failed on launch and fired itself back towards Earth.
The former premier said he had activated the state’s counter-disaster response system, which alerted emergency services and federal agencies to the impending danger.
“It was a co-ordinated disaster plan, which involves everyone in the event of something going wrong,” he said.
“Just as we started notify (other agencies), we were told that it wasn’t a problem anymore.”
A spokesman for Mr Howard, who was yesterday travelling in England for the cricket, said the former PM remembered taking the call from Mr Clinton, and passing on its grim message to Mr Borbidge.
Brisbane had a population of 1.6 million in 1996, while the Gold Coast was home to 376,000 — plus summer tourists. An impact from a large piece of space junk in either centre, particularly if it was still carrying its load of plutonium — would have been catastrophic.
Mr Borbidge said the crisis was over within hours, with the object flying over the top of Queensland and crashing into the north Pacific Ocean, west of South America.
“Fortunately, the Americans had made a serious miscalculation. The trajectory was correct, but obviously the distance was out because it went over the top of Queensland,” he said.
“To be told that there’s a very large piece of space junk, that had big bits left in it after re-entry, and was on a path for southern Queensland — it sends a nasty feeling through you, you don’t expect it.”
The US government tracked the probe’s re-entry and at the time said it had broken up and landed in the Pacific Ocean off South America.
After public sightings of debris in the sky, they later admitted parts of it had made it to land in southern Chile and Bolivia.
There is no record of the debris or its nuclear fuel being recovered.
The Gold CoastBulletin has contacted NASA for a response.