Monday, April 15, 2013

We Aren't The Only Ones, Part 5 and Final

by Stephanie Osborn

As promised, the Chinese space failure. Excerpted from A New American Space Plan, by Travis S. Taylor and myself, from Baen Books.

It should be noted that the Chinese space program is considered a branch of their military, at least in part, and therefore is subject to much secrecy. In point of fact, it is only in recent years that there has even been a Chinese space program apart from that needed to develop ICBMs. In addition, upon the fall of the Soviet Union, much of that space agency's history came to light. We do not have this advantage in gleaning information about the Chinese space program, so this section is quite short relative to American and Russian space history.


China’s space program as such began in the late 1950s, under the auspices of their Ministry of Aerospace Industry, and Chairman Mao Tzedong. At that time it consisted mostly of work on intercontinental ballistic missiles, as we were at the height of the Cold War, and they were responding to what they considered potential threats from both the U.S. and Russia. They seemed to have no particular interest in manned space flight for several more decades.

Upon Mao’s death in 1976, Deng Xiaoping emerged as China’s leader, and canceled many missile programs and anti-missile defense programs considered important at the time. However, long range ICBM development did continue, as well as the Long March series of launch vehicles, enabling them to compete in the commercial launch industry. When the Cold War ended, Deng stepped up his commercialization of China, and moved away from the blatant use of communist revolution rhetoric in the naming of vehicles, and toward ancient Chinese religious and mystical names. This included, for example, renaming the Long March rockets “Divine Arrow.”

He split the Ministry into two parts in 1993: the China National Space Administration (CNSA), responsible for space policy and planning, and the China Aerospace Corporation (CASC), responsible for execution of the program.

Shortly thereafter, China had its first public space program disaster.

In February of 1996, the launch of the first Long March 3B heavy launch vehicle went drastically wrong. Carrying Intelsat 708, a commercial telecommunications satellite, the rocket failed almost immediately on liftoff as a result of an engineering defect, deviating drastically from its launch trajectory at the Xichang Satellite Launch Center. It crashed twenty-two seconds later and slightly more than one mile (slightly under two kilometers) from the launch facility—directly on top of a village. Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, under government control, reported six killed and fifty-seven injured, with eighty houses destroyed. Unofficial reports, however, place the death toll at well over 500 people.

Three years after this disaster, Shenzhou 1 was successfully launched—unmanned—on the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Rebublic of China in 1999...China is a member of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. However, its space program, despite the “corporate” designation of half of it, is entirely military-run, and in 2007 it shot down one of its own dead satellites.


So far, since the Long March disaster in 1996, the Chinese space program has been ambitious and successful. They have specified their intent to go to the Moon and to be the first humans to land on Mars. If they continue like this, they may well beat everyone in the doing; they seem to have the will and the political backing to advance, while the West is mired in political in-fighting and lack of apparent interest.

Despite our failures, I think it can safely be said that the US space program as put forth by NASA has hardly had quite so spectacular or horrific failures as have occurred elsewhere. We have not dropped any rockets on any small towns; we have never deliberately and with foreknowledge gone forward with completely inane designs. We have not wiped out a significant portion of our rocket team by requiring them to sit in the same field with the launch vehicle. Speaking as someone who has worked side by side with fellow American space flight controllers, I can honestly say that we have done the best we could do to keep our colleagues safe within reason - for space will never be completely safe. It is inherently an inimical environment, and one in which no human would live for a minute without layers of protection, whether that protection be physical, procedural, or otherwise. I have been a part of that protection, in a manner of speaking. It is a task that I strove to do to my utmost, and it is something of which I will always be proud.

-Stephanie Osborn