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The worst space-related disaster happened in Xichang, China? ...in 1996?
March 21, 2010 9:39 AM   Subscribe

The date was February 15, 1996. The place was the Xichang Satellite Launch Center (Google Map), situated some 64 km northwest of Xichang City, Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan Province. At 2:50 AM, the Chinese Long March 3B rocket launched carrying the Intelsat 708, an American communications satellite. Seconds later, the worst space-related disaster in history occurred sparking a technology transfer controversy. Chinese authorities said 6 people died but video footage tells a different story.
posted by stringbean (26 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

 
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posted by yeloson at 9:57 AM on March 21, 2010


What a terrible event.

Great post.
posted by Kattullus at 10:04 AM on March 21, 2010


Holy shit. Six dead 57 injured my ass. That town was gone.
posted by infinitewindow at 10:04 AM on March 21, 2010


Socialism with a Fuck You Face.

Watching that video it seems like an egregious failure of range safety protocols. The vehicle ought to have been detonated the moment it veered off trajectory, but it looks like the explosion didn't happen until it had already turned the parabolic corner back toward the ground. The question for me: Was it a deliberate delay to save the launch structure?

It's also pretty incredible how desolate that wrecked village looks, what must be dawn the next day. Fire in concrete block structures would be easily put out, but you would still expect a normal event like this to have crews fighting hot spots and survivors in a daze, but it looks like they cleared the entire place of anything resembling life or active fire in a few short hours. It must have been an absolutely massive effort (even accounting for China's advantages in manpower).
posted by dhartung at 10:05 AM on March 21, 2010


.

(Why on earth would they launch a huge rocket so close to a densely populated town?)
posted by Dumsnill at 10:11 AM on March 21, 2010


Jesus, that's terrible,
posted by brundlefly at 10:30 AM on March 21, 2010


This Chinese-language version of the story reckons it hit the dormitories where the launch technicians lived ("火箭爆炸的地点正好在航天工程技术人员住的宿舍附近,强烈的气浪瞬间冲垮了钢筋水泥的建筑。") which fits with the ruined buildings in the footage - doesn't look like a rural village, at any rate. Not much sign of a rocket impact though, and if it's supposed to be five hours later you'd think it would still be smouldering (though the sentence I quoted says air pressure shock-waves knocked the buildings down). Other Chinese sources reckon 8 dead and 57 injured.
Wouldn't surprise me to discover the toll was much worse, but I don't think you can automatically take the desire to cover it up as conclusive proof it was a massive loss of life. Is their anything online from the Israeli engineer who's supposed to have taken that footage?
posted by Abiezer at 10:31 AM on March 21, 2010 [5 favorites]


Should say, the claim is it impacted close near the dormitories and the shock-waves downed the buildings.
posted by Abiezer at 10:33 AM on March 21, 2010


Did they not have range safety equipment, or did they choose not to use it?

According to Wikipedia China is moving its space lauch center to Hainan Island, so they can launch over the ocean. The original reason for not launching from the northwestern desert or the ocean seems to be fear of foreign attack.
posted by miyabo at 10:34 AM on March 21, 2010


(Why on earth would they launch a huge rocket so close to a densely populated town?)

To be fair, the town that was decimated is 34 miles from the launch site, and Orlando is 43 travel miles from Kennedy Space center, closer as the crow rocket flies. I don't think they were necessarily "close" to the launch site at all.
posted by hippybear at 10:39 AM on March 21, 2010


Does anyone know whether this has a place in modern Chinese mythology (like, for example, Roswell in Western modern mythology)?
posted by Kattullus at 10:40 AM on March 21, 2010


great post. I only found out about this tragedy recently and thought that it was a terrible shame that it was so little known and talked about.
posted by 256 at 10:47 AM on March 21, 2010


To be fair, the town that was decimated is 34 miles from the launch site, and Orlando is 43 travel miles from Kennedy Space center, closer as the crow rocket flies. I don't think they were necessarily "close" to the launch site at all.

Okay, if that's the case, then yes. I was reading this Wikipedia information: "On February 15, 1996 a fatal accident occurred when the first new Long March 3B heavy carrier rocket carrying Intelsat 708 veered off course 22 seconds after launch, crashing 1850 meters away from the launch pad in a nearby mountain village and destroying 80 houses, according to the official count, and killing more than 500 civilians according to unofficial Chinese sources."

I thought it was odd that they would launch these things less than 2 kilometers away from a town, but it's Wikipedia, so I don't know.
posted by Dumsnill at 10:49 AM on March 21, 2010


Link
posted by Dumsnill at 10:52 AM on March 21, 2010


an...an... there suposta make Arcs for us?
posted by clavdivs at 10:59 AM on March 21, 2010


Oh, I am likely mistaken. I thought the town mentioned in the FPP was the one that was decimated. I looked at Wikipedia, but my rather quick skim didn't yield what you found.

Still... the closer towns to Kennedy Space Center are really only across a stretch of water, it looks like about 8-10 miles away. So, yes. I'm mistaken, we don't have towns nearly as close to our primary launch site as the Chinese apparently had to theirs.
posted by hippybear at 11:02 AM on March 21, 2010


Good post. Those links to the subsequent technology transfer scandal are a bit confuse, though. This one paints a clearer picture of the issues. It must be noted that the stringent restrictions on space technology export passed in the wake of the Cox Report had the unintended consequence of nearly devastating the US space sector, as it became near-impossible to launch a satellite that had as much as a single US-made bolt from anywhere else than the US, ruling out cheaper foreign launchers, even from Allied nations.
posted by Skeptic at 11:03 AM on March 21, 2010


I'm amazed and a bit chagrined that I had no idea, or at least recollection, of this. Wow.
posted by the bricabrac man at 11:22 AM on March 21, 2010


Chinese authorities said 6 people died but video footage tells a different story

The video (linked from 'footage') says that the claim of 6 people dying was for the LongMarch 2, which exploded in the air. The video of the destruction is from the crash of the LongMarch 3, which is the one that veered off course and crashed into the buildings.
posted by statolith at 12:13 PM on March 21, 2010


If you look at the Google Map, there are only three small towns within a 2km radius. Only the town to the southwest has large concrete buildings.

If the Israeli engineer who took the video was being evacuated from the area, he would likely pass through that town. The roads heading north from the launch site lead nowhere. The road heading southwest leads to the Luhuang Expressway.

My guess is that the small park that appears 51 seconds into this video is the park located here. Notice the large object in the park with footpaths around it? The footpaths are still there but the object in the center (which seems to have been quite damaged in the video) was probably replaced by this building.

At point 1:01 of the same video, there is a peculiarly shaped concrete building which is a perfect match for this building here. It is actually two buildings that are connected. The shape of the buildings, the way they are connected and their distance from the small park almost confirm that the building in the video is indeed the one on the map.

Those two points would make sense given the distance from the launch site and the direction our engineer would have to travel to leave the area.

Hopefully someone with a sharper eye or stronger Google-fu will be able to turn up more details. If someone who was actually there could confirm the exact location, we should add a marker to Google Maps with details of this disaster.

The people who lost their lives that day deserve a memorial, even if it's just a small marker on an online map. Sacrifices for the sake of human space progress should not be swept under the rug and forgotten.
posted by stringbean at 1:16 PM on March 21, 2010 [7 favorites]


(Stringbean, nice sleuthing but I think you mixed up those Google Maps links)
posted by gottabefunky at 1:44 PM on March 21, 2010


the closer towns to Kennedy Space Center are really only across a stretch of water, it looks like about 8-10 miles away

Yes, but they're in the wrong direction. At Kennedy, they always launch toward the east, not the west.

The reason is physics: for most launches, you launch eastward because the rotation of the earth gives your spacecraft a little extra kick of speed, meaning that you can loft more satellite with the same amount of fuel. (For associated reasons, you want your launch facility as close to the equator as possible.) That's why Kennedy/Canaveral was chosen in the first place... far south, and rockets would go over water rather than populated areas. For launches in other directions -- polar or retrograde orbits -- the US uses Vandenberg AFB, on the West coast.

worst space-related disaster in history

It's also worth mentioning the Nedelin catastrophe, which might still have been a secret but for the work of veteran space reporter Jim Oberg.
posted by cgs06 at 2:16 PM on March 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


cgs06 -- good info all around, but if your launch fails as spectacularly as this one it really doesn't matter which direction you intended to launch the rocket.
posted by localroger at 2:42 PM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


If you look at 1:01 of the video mentioned above, you will see debris hanging out of the windows of this building.

As you can see from the map and video, the debris would have been hanging out of the northeast windows suggesting an explosion southwest of that building.

If you draw a 1850m (1.15 mile) line from the launch area using the Google Maps My Maps Distance Tool and draw a line southwest from that building, they intersect at this area of a nearby hill. Note the round area devoid of tall trees.

Could this be where the rocket landed?

Another area that would make sense is the clearing between those two points.
posted by stringbean at 2:54 PM on March 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


If this was an unmanned rocket, and it was pretty clear from the moment it left the pad that it had gone horribly wrong, why didn't they detonate it before it got near the populated area? Don't most launches have a pull-the-plug contingency for just such an eventuality?
posted by quin at 3:07 PM on March 22, 2010


If this was an unmanned rocket, and it was pretty clear from the moment it left the pad that it had gone horribly wrong, why didn't they detonate it before it got near the populated area? Don't most launches have a pull-the-plug contingency for just such an eventuality?

Even if they did have a pull-the-plug contingency (and I am sure that they would), it would have been a difficult decision for the person with their finger on the button.

The stage one guidance failure happened almost immediately. If they had detonated too soon, they'd lose the Service Tower (Vehicle Assembly Building?), Umbilical Tower and perhaps even the Launch Control Center they were in standing in (diagram).

Compounding the difficulty of the decision was a nearly identical disaster the previous year (January 26, 1995) at the same location with the same family of rocket (Long March). In that disaster, they did detonate above ground but falling debris killed six people.

Also, if the current rocket had flown a few seconds longer and landed just a km (or even 500m) to the south, it would have landed in the middle of the mountains, probably saving hundreds if not thousands of lives. Maybe that's what they were hoping for.
posted by stringbean at 9:45 PM on March 22, 2010


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