Space: Take The Money And Shut Up

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December 15, 2013: On December 2nd some debris from the launch of the first Chinese moon rover (a small vehicle that will move about on the moon’s surface) landed in a rural village and damaged a home and a barn. The government promptly paid $2,635 in compensation. This was considered a pretty good response by the government, which tends to take what it wants and ignore citizen complaints.

This wass not an isolated incident. The area in Hunan province where the rocket debris fell is a thousand kilometers from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center and the area has been hit by debris on at least twenty occasions. Often the debris lands where it does little damage, or is not even found for a while. That was the case in 2010 when China launched its second moon probe, in preparation for a manned mission, and several large pieces of the rocket (discarded as the first stage separated) fell to earth and landed harmlessly but spectacularly on farmland. This incident made it into the news, something the Chinese government seeks to avoid.

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. American and most other launch centers are on the coast for missions like this so that when the rockets take off the 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 (of telescopes) and ears (antennae pickup up transmissions) of the enemy (usually a long list.) Dead farmers are acceptable collateral damage, although to prevent unrest compensation is paid and paid quickly.

In the Chinese countryside the farmers tend to live in compact villages. This is good most of the time when it comes to falling rocket debris. Most of the countryside is farmland, mountains or pasture. But when launches go wrong and the rocket has to be destroyed in the air a lot more stuff comes down. For example, in 1996, a rocket from Xichang Satellite Launch Center went off course, exploded 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 indicated that dozens were killed and many more injured. There were rumors of other similar incidents since then but China exerts a lot of effort to keep details of space operations, especially accidents, secret. Just to be on the safe side, each reported incident is quickly investigated and (usually) adequate compensation promptly paid. But with the proliferation of cell phones and the Internet into rural areas, cell phone photos increasingly get out before the government censors can step in.

Russia has had similar problems at their Soviet era Baikonur space center in Kazakhstan. Even farther inland than Xichang, Baikonur is surrounded by far more thinly populated areas. The Kazakhs complain about the threat of accidents, but nearly all the people killed during bad launches were people working at Baikonur, not outside the launch complex. Despite the occasional large-scale casualties China has continues 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 so take the money and shut up.

 


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