On the evening of July 2, China launched the Long March 5 rocket at the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Center in Hainan, China’s southernmost province. Shortly afterward, an engine failure sent the rocket plummeting into the Pacific Ocean.
The specter of failure always looms over space launches; however, setbacks have become somewhat more frequent for China’s space program in recent years. On June 19, just a couple of weeks before the failed launch of Long March 5, the Long March 3B carrier rocket launched from Xichang Satellite Launch Center in the southwestern province of Sichuan with the ChinaSat 9A communications satellite as its payload. However, another engine malfunction initially prevented the satellite from entering its planned orbit. Two failed launches also occurred in 2016.
Some might say that the failure of the Long March 5 is to be expected, as it is a relatively new model. Concerningly, however, the other failures all occurred with more established rocket models. And for me, what’s most worrying of all is the recent attitude change inside the China National Space Administration (CNSA) regarding these failures.
On Aug. 18, 2011, the launch of the Long March 2C-Y26 rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northern China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region was unsuccessful due to a connection failure between one of the engines and its control system. The failed test cast doubt on the launch center’s planned space dock between the Tiangong-1 space module and the Shenzhou-8 spacecraft, a maneuver that would be a first for China.
Some said that Tiangong-1 could be launched as scheduled, claiming that the rocket propelling it into orbit — also a member of the Long March class — was built to a different, better-tested specification. However, the mission command center was resolute that the launch of Tiangong-1 should be halted so that the malfunction in the Long March 2C rocket could be located. While the two Long March rockets were different from one another, they still belonged to the same series. As a result, the launch of the Tiangong-1 was pushed back 40 days until the connecting mechanism was strengthened.
This delay came at a cost. For one thing, it caused a great deal of trouble for the launch center, located out in the Gobi Desert. It rained heavily around Jiuquan that year, and the storage space for Tiangong-1 became dangerously humid. The launch site’s staff had to think on their feet to maintain the humidity levels that Tiangong-1 required, working around the clock to ensure that the machine remained functional. Eventually, they succeeded.
There are many other stories like this. However, in the last few years, an oppressively bureaucratic atmosphere has spread through China’s aerospace industry.
Last September, after the Long March 4C carrier rocket failed during its launch of the Gaofen-10 satellite at Xichang Satellite Launch Center, I attended the teleconference held to analyze the malfunction. It is a standard operation procedure to have such meeting after each launch failure. As soon as I entered the venue, a member of staff informed me that the conference could not be filmed. I replied that this was unacceptable: The experts from the launch site were in attendance, and since my company had been instructed to come and shoot the proceedings, I needed to return with footage.
After debating this for quite some time, it was finally decided that I could only film the crew from the launch site. No members of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), the space program’s main contractor, could appear in any shots. The argument left a bitter taste in my mouth, because this individual made me feel stifled. This was not the atmosphere that a scientific research organization was supposed to have. It smacked of politicians trying to weasel their way out of speaking frankly about the failed launch.
In the end, the entire conference was stymied by red tape. Experts from the CASC, the launch site, the Xi’an-based rocket manufacturing plant, and the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT) all came up to the podium, but many of their speeches rambled on without attempting to assume any responsibility for the issue. Since then, I have been unable to recover that unified, issue-focused feeling that once characterized these kinds of conferences.
The bureaucratization of the aerospace industry was followed by another corresponding trend. Gradually, key players in China’s space program have left the industry and gone into politics. Around 2013, four high ranking officials in CASC and CNSA were promoted as provincial governors.
Throughout the history of the People’s Republic, the aerospace industry has enjoyed a status that far outshines that of other industries. Even today, its profound impact on ordinary Chinese serves as a rallying point for national cohesion; it is an irreplaceable symbol of this country’s thriving development. It is only natural for the people who emerge from this industry to become provincial governors and national leaders. However, I’d rather China’s aerospace industry produced more technological heroes — like the celebrated rocket scientist, Qian Xuesen, and the father of China’s atom bomb, Qian Sanqiang.
In China, we have always taken great pride in our space program. While we still feel deeply proud of it today, there is a lingering sense that the program isn’t what it once was. I hope that the space program can divest itself of the stench of bureaucracy that currently enshrouds it. This is not an atmosphere befitting of true scientific inquiry.
Translator: Zachary Haluza; editors: Wu Haiyun, Yang Xiaozhou, and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: A Long March 5 Y2 rocket blasts off at the Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan province, July 2, 2017. Shi Yan/VCG)