Once again, a Chinese rocket has doused a village with toxic fuel

China’s space program now ranks among the most successful in the world, with more launches than any other country on an annual basis, the capability to send humans into orbit, and an exploration plan that includes firsts such as the Chang’e-4 spacecraft’s landing on the far side of the Moon.

However, in its steady ascent China has flouted some norms of launch.

One of these is that areas down range of launch pads should be sparsely populated—preferably oceans—due to launch hazards and the uncontrolled descent of first and second stages.

China’s defiance of this norm has resulted in some horrific scenes as its boosters have periodically crashed into villages. On Friday, a Long March 3B rocket launched a pair of Beidou satellites into orbit. The rocket’s ascent was normal, but its first stage booster tumbled into a village down range from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center, in the South-Central part of the country.

This was the aftermath reported on Chinese social media over the weekend:

This is the aftermath downrange following a Chinese Long March 3B launch from Xichang early Saturday. And that yellow smoke is very toxic hypergolic propellant. Source: https://t.co/VEh5X8Ors0pic.twitter.com/22IVIpyJOk

— Andrew Jones (@AJ_FI) November 23, 2019

It has happened many times before, including most infamously in 1996 when a Long March 3B rocket veered off course shortly after a launch and crashed into a village. Chinese officials reported six dead from the accident, although Western sources have speculated that hundreds of Chinese citizens may have died in the accident.

Significant cost advantage

After a launch in April, 2019 littered the Chinese landscape with toxic debris, commercial space expert Greg Autry called on the Trump administration to address China’s lax safety regulations.

“The safety standards used in Chinese space launch would leave American regulators apoplectic,” Autry wrote in Space News. “As is the case in many global industries, this lax approach to environmental standards and human safety promises to provide China with a significant cost advantage over more responsible and highly regulated American firms.”

Unlike the coastal-based nature of many spaceports in the United States and around the world, China built three of its major launch centers away from water during the Cold War, amid tensions with both America and the Soviet Union. For security purposes, it built the sites at inland locations.

Earlier this year, China began experimenting with grid fins to help steer the first stage of its rockets away from populated areas. However, it seems likely that China has invested in the grid fin experiments more to emulate SpaceX’s ability to land and reuse first stage boosters than protect its population.

This is because the Xichang launch center has been open for more than three decades, and grid fin technology is older than this. The country has had ample time to protect its citizens, but only now—after SpaceX as demonstrated the viability of vertical take off and vertical landing—has the country seriously looked into such technology.

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