Rocket scientists' deaths revealed 16 years later

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 May, 2012, 12:00am


Mainland television viewers learned the names of two space scientists whose deaths were kept secret for 16 years for the first time last week.

Liang Xiaohong, party secretary of the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, said in a China Central Television documentary broadcast on April 23 that two colleagues were killed when the launch of the first Long March III rocket failed on February 15, 1996.

Footage shot that day showed the rocket, carrying more than 400 tonnes of fuel, veering off course and slamming into the ground near the living quarters at the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre in Sichuan, sparking a massive explosion.

'Let's mourn the deaths of comrade Qian Zhiying and comrade Yang Linzhen , who have spilled their blood to tell us that quality is a matter of life and death,' Liang said in the documentary.

'I attended their funerals on the eve of the Lunar New Year. To me, to the team, to the project, to the academy and even to the entire Chinese space programme, the lesson is carved into our bones.'

Liang was speaking in March, hours before the 50th launch of a Long March III rocket.

The Long March series of rockets has achieved a domestic reputation as the safest form of transport from earth to space, partly due to propaganda efforts that have trumpeted its successes and played down failures.

But most overseas customers were scared away by a series of failures in the mid-1990s.

In recent years, with improved design and tougher quality control, the Long March rockets have painfully rebuilt their international reputation and slowly regained market share by launching satellites for developing countries such as Nigeria and Laos.

New models, such as the heavy-lifting Long March V series, are under development, and the government hopes that China's share of the global satellite launch market will grow from less than 4 per cent at present to more than 15 per cent by 2015.

Founder of China's rocket programme, Dr Qian Xuesen , boarded a ship from Los Angeles to Hong Kong in 1955 after five years of house arrest for his communist sympathies. China freed all the US pilots it had captured in the Korean war in return for Qian's repatriation.

Also a founder of the United States' rocket programme during the second world war, Qian had worked closely with German rocket scientists such as Wernher von Braun after the war, specialising in high-speed aerodynamics and jet propulsion.

Soon after his arrival in Beijing, Qian was sent to the heart of the Gobi Desert in Gansu province at the head of thousands of scientists and engineers to lead China's missile programme.

Working in a harsh environment and facing adversities ranging from starvation to the lack of a computer, Qian and his colleagues at the Fifth Institute, now the China Academy of Space Technology, developed China's first long-range missile, the Silkworm, which set the technological platform for the Long March.

The first Long March rocket lifted China's first satellite, Dongfanghong-1, into a low earth orbit in 1970 to broadcast a song glorifying Mao Zedong around the world in short radio pulses.

Chinese people living through the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution hailed the success but were kept in the dark about the failures that followed.

Military documents declassified recently showed that the third Long March launch went seriously wrong.

Blasting off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in Gansu, the rocket lost its bearings and its self-destruction mechanism was triggered 20 seconds after launch, according to a 2005 paper by the People's Liberation Army's General Armament Department.

The ninth Long March rocket, carrying an experimental communications satellite, also failed in 1984, according to the website of China Great Wall Industry Corporation (CGWIC), the commercial carrier of China's rocket launch services. The nature and causes of the failure were never disclosed.

Li Yutong, the head of China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation's space flight department, said in the documentary broadcast last week that by the mid-1980s, commercial launch services had become a global business worth billions of US dollars.

After the blow suffered by America's space industry following the Challenger shuttle tragedy in 1986, the Long March was given a rare opportunity to enter the international market, he said.

But the 1990s turned out to be the Long March's darkest decade.

Five failed launches were recorded between 1991 and 1996, making the Long March the world's least reliable rockets at the time.

Li said all overseas contracts were lost after 1996.

'We have not recovered from the blow,' he said.

Jiang Jie , chief designer of the Long March 3 series, said that the failures in the 1990s had prompted China to undertake a series of reforms to tighten management and improve product quality.

For instance, every instrument in the rocket's control system is now fitted with a back-up to ensure the success of the mission in the event of hardware glitches.

From rocket design to launch, scientists and researchers worked under the highest level of alertness, she said. Every detail, from the looseness of power plugs to tiny temperature variations is recorded, analysed and monitored.

And the sudden workload increase in recent years had not lowered quality standards.

'We conducted 22 launches in the past four years and only 28 launches in the previous 14,' she said. 'We have entered the period of high launch frequency, but we must maintain perfectionism in our work.'

Management reform and software upgrades have led to the Long March's improved safety record since 1996. If not for the launch failure of one domestic satellite last year, the record would have been perfect.

China launched three satellites - for Pakistan, Nigeria and Brazil - last year and five more international commercial launches are scheduled this year, according CGWIC.

Addressing young scientists and engineers after the successful launch at Jiuquan in March, Liang urged them to work harder. 'The world will definitely be yours,' he said.


Percentage by which China hopes to grow its share of the global satellite launch market in the next three years