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Prospect of an explosion prompts Cassini protesters to leave town

Nearly all the protesters left town: They didn't want to be around if the rocket carrying NASA's Cassini spacecraft blew up and 72 pounds of highly radioactive, highly carcinogenic plutonium rained down.

The engineers and scientists who devoted years to the project, on the other hand, brought their families to witness what they considered to be a historical, and safe, event: launch of the first spacecraft designed to orbit the ringed planet Saturn.The moment of truth - liftoff of the mammoth Titan 4-B rocket with Cassini - was scheduled for the predawn hours today.

"I invited everyone I love to the launch," said Richard Spehalski, program manager for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Among the more than 30 Spehalski family members gathered at Cape Canaveral: his two granddaughters, ages 6 months and 4 years.

The Energy Department's Beverly Cook, who is in charge of Cassini's nuclear power load, was joined by her husband and 13-year-old daughter. "I would not have my daughter standing here if I had any qualms about it," she said.

With just hours remaining before the scheduled launch of Cassini on an 11-year, $3.4 billion mission to explore Saturn, its rings and moons, the grassy field normally used by anti-Cassini protesters near the Cape Canaveral Air Station was empty Sunday.

In an unusual twist, two men from Fort Lauderdale sat along the road leading into the Air Force station holding pro-Cassini signs. They said they were tired of all the fuss and wanted to show their support.

Across the road, just outside the station gate, Kevin Marsh staged a one-man protest. His sign read: "Cancel Cassini, no nukes in space."

"These people who had this rally organized throughout the last week, don't get me wrong, they did OK, they said their mind," said Marsh, who flew in from northern California and intended to stay through launch. "But they're like 9-to-5 demonstrators, you know, yuppie protesters . . . they're blowing out of here."

Cassini will swoop within 500 miles of Earth in August 1999, after having swung past Venus twice for gravity-assisted speed. The spacecraft won't reach Saturn until 2004; The plutonium, the most ever loaded onto a U.S. probe, is needed to power all the instruments so far from the sun.