Space: Collateral Damage And The Greater Good

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October 26, 2010: China recently launched a second moon probe (in preparation for a manned mission), but there was some unwanted excitement on the ground. Several large pieces of the rocket, discarded as the first stage separated, fell to earth, and landed harmlessly on farmland. Debris falling back to earth, after the launch of a large, multi-stage rocket, is normal. The Chinese are aware of the problem, but built their Xichang Satellite Launch Center far inland anyway. The U.S. launch centers are on the coast for missions like this, and fires its rockets so that debris comes down over open water. In addition, warnings are issued to mariners in the region, telling them to stay clear of areas where debris is expected to come down. But China is a communist police state, and paranoia is paramount. Best to build launch facilities far from the coast, and the prying eyes (using telescopes) and ears (antennae pickup up transmissions) of the enemy (usually a long list.) Dead farmers are acceptable collateral damage.

In the Chinese countryside, the farmers tend to live in compact villages, which is good, most of the time,  when it comes to falling rocket debris. Most of the countryside is farmland, mountains or pasture. But in 1996, a rocket from the same Xichang Satellite Launch Center, went off course and sent lots of debris to the ground. Some of it hit a village and caused over fifty casualties. The official death toll was six, but information leaking out of the area indicates that dozens were killed and many more injured. There are rumors of other such casualties since then, but China exerts a lot of effort to keep details of space operations secret. Since then, China has continued to play the odds with the lives of people living under the eastward flight path of these launches. Or, as communists like to put it, the deaths are all for the greater good.

 

 


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