One reason [some US space personnel] won’t collaborate with China on space exploration.

[See Update 2, below for a brief explanation of why I’ve changed the title of this post from ‘One reason the US won’t collaborate with China on space exploration,’ to its current version.]

I’m a big fan of China’s space program (any space program, really) and nobody cheers louder when it pulls off successful missions. So, needless to say, I was thrilled to learn that China had launched its second lunar probe, Chang’e II, over the weekend. But my excitement was quickly tempered by photos of Chinese farmland littered with solid rocket booster debris that rained down in the aftermath of the launch (image from via shanghaiist).

Now, I’m no rocket scientist, but I am a space buff – and like any space buff worth his salt, I know that – barring an accident – solid rocket boosters don’t just accidentally fall onto populated areas. Mission designers can predict with certainty where these things fall – thus, NASA’s ability to retrieve the space shuttle’s solid rocket boosters. In any case, this morning I received an email from an acquaintance who has worked with NASA in the past. With his permission, I quote (anonymously):

[O]ne of two problems here. Either the rocket boosters didn’t burn up in the atmosphere as designed (failure of design) or the mission planners didn’t give a s*** if they landed in a populated area. If the first then you’ve got a program that isn’t capable of something that the US program figured out decades ago. If the second then you’ve got a program that’s willing to sacrifice civilian lives to send up a probe. Either way you’ve got a program that the US can’t work with forgetting even that nat’l security is an issue.

As an addendum, I think it’s worth pointing out that, in the past, the Chinese have launched US satellites from the same facility as Chang’e II, and that one of those launches – in 1996 – resulted in the destruction of large swaths of Xichang. That incident and others that place civilians at risk are among the reasons that the Chinese are building a new launch facility on Hainan Island. Presumably, once operational, that facility’s debris will fall into the ocean.

[UPDATE: In the comments, below, Sean – a frequent commentator – notes:

They do evacuate parts of three provinces that are in the range of the falling rocket boosters and satellite debris. Parts of Guizhou, Sichuan and Jiangxi are where the debris is expected to fall, and in Guizhou alone, around 200 thousand people are evacuated.]

[UPDATE 2: I’ve received a couple of emails from people suggesting that these sorts of incidents aren’t, in fact, the basis for any sort of US gov’t space policy. That’s true, and I concede that the original title – “One reason why the US won’t collaborate with China on space exploration’ – was a bit over-the-top. Thus, I’ve changed it. The person who emailed me the above comment on the Chang’e 2 booster was writing as a knowledgeable individual who had worked with NASA in the past, and his comment reflected the consensus of some of his colleagues – not the US gov’t. My apologies if the original title implied otherwise.]

[UPDATE 3: In a very detailed, very interesting comment (4, below), Tom suggests that the images in question show a payload fairing, and not a rocket booster. I’ve just emailed the person who sent me the email that set off this post, in the first place, to see if there’s a response.]


  1. Interesting point Adam. I saw these pictures too. Space exploration’s cost is human life… sound very Star Trekkian. But unfortunately NASA won’t be doing much in the future if Obama has his way. Too bad too, because you actually praised the US for doing something right. AWESOME! What is China probing for anyway?

  2. They do evacuate parts of three provinces that are in the range of the falling rocket boosters and satellite debris.
    Parts of Guizhou, Sichuan and Jiangxi are where the debris is expected to fall, and in Guizhou alone, around 200 thousand people are evacuated.

  3. Great posting! 5-7 yrs ago I met Siberian/Central Asian NGO activists protesting Russian boosters dropped on Kazakhstan from Baikonur launches. (Russia knew boosters would land on Kazakhstan & Siberia and there were no evacuations, as far as I know.) Aside from the danger of getting landed on by debris, extremely toxic jellylike unburned fuel — which Russians called “heptil” — was being carried home in empty cans and used like Sterno, for cooking (!). When civil society has no legal recourse against the government, this is what happens.

  4. Clearly these are not pieces of the solid rocket boosters from the Chang’e 2 launch.

    First, the Chang’e 2 was launched by a Long March 3C rocket. This rocket does not have solid rocket boosters — it has liquid rocket boosters.

    Second, the liquid rocket boosters are detached within a few minutes of launch, and impact within half an hour. The Chang’e 2 mission was launched on October 1, whereas this debris came down yesterday (October 4).

    NASA lingo sometimes uses the word “booster” (singular, and not preceded by “rocket”) to refer to the entire launch rocket. However, your acquaintance used the phrase “rocket boosters” (plural), which has the meaning that you ascribed to it (except for the word “solid”).

    The photos sure look like part of a payload fairing to me. In fact, if you click through to the Italian website that brought this meme over to the Western world, it even says “payload fairing.” (No direct link to the original article — just a link to the home page. Very annoying.)

    I’d advise your ex-NASA acquaintance not to rely on a game of Chinese-to-Italian-to-English telephone. Also, (s)he might ease up on the heavy-duty “national security” and “sacrifice civilian lives”, because it sounds like it came from a certain movie by Stanley Kubrick.

  5. There are total of four areas of debris recover as far as I know.
    The two boosters are recover from Jinsha County, Guizhou and Gulin County, Sichuan.
    A piece of the Main Carrier Rocket was recovered from Zhenyuan County, Guizhou. And the payload fairings were found at Suichuan County, Jiangxi, there were two pieces. They were all found around the evening of October 1st.

  6. Sean — thanks for the additional info. Since the location matches, sounds like the photos are indeed of the payload fairing. Also, October 1 is the night of launch, so that’s exactly when you’d expect impact to take place.

    I’m not sure how to reconcile this with the assertion that lives were put at risk. If everything went according to plan, and the plan included evacuations along the flight path, then what exactly happened?

    P.S. I apologize for spreading the “October 4” misinformation. I foolishly *believed* what the Popular Science article said: “Villagers in the area awoke last night …” (article written October 4, add 1 day for international date line).

    The Italian article said that the payload fairing impacted at 7:11 PM. It didn’t give a date, but the launch took place just shy of 7:00 PM. Sure would make sense for the payload fairing to come down same-day. Next time I’ll use my brain.

  7. I haven’t visited in a while Adam and I’m impressed to find that you are now being visited by rocket scientists. Onward and upward.

  8. First of all, even if they ‘evacuate’ those areas, it is still reckless and you know not everyone will leave their homes.
    Second, the only reason the US is no longer cooperating with the Chinese in space tech is that the new revolution in military affairs is in space. Space is now weaponized for eternity. No matter what the Chinese say about encouraging peaceful use of space, they have contributed to it’s weaponization with anti-satellite weaponry development and competing gps system. Even now they are even discussing weaponization of near space. So from a strictly Realist school perspective, it should be no surprise why the US does not assist the Chinese in Space tech… You can’t trust your competitor nor should you help arm them.

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