Setbacks are inevitable in space exploration
Accepting risk and failure is the price that has to be paid to expand knowledge and advance technology, as China has come to learn
Risk and failure are a normal part of any space programme. China has come to learn that, just as other space-faring nations have. The failed launch of a Long March 5 rocket, the second such incident in as many weeks, is without doubt a setback for engineers, scientists and the nation’s ambitions. But when it comes to extraterrestrial exploration, there can be no success without failure.
Scientists have always known that, so it is good that authorities now also understand. In a positive sign of transparency, they were quick to announce Sunday’s mishap with the rocket and the loss of the experimental satellite it was carrying, the largest that China has yet tried to launch. An investigation is under way, but the outcome is unlikely to alter the setbacks to human space flight and planet exploration plans, which will rely on the heavy-lifting capacity of the Long March rocket. A malfunction in a lesser version last month failed to lift a satellite to its anticipated orbit, but the more powerful rocket’s reliability had already been brought into question during its first test last November; although considered a success, it was similarly unable to put its satellite payload onto the right path.
There is good reason for transparency, though; China pins its hopes on the Long March 5, a rocket that puts its capabilities beside long-standing space powers the United States and Russia. The rocket’s next planned launch in November was to carry the Chang’e-5 spacecraft, which is to be the crux of the nation’s second lunar lander with a mission to bring back the first samples from the moon in four decades. It will also be integral to helping assemble China’s first permanently crewed space station, with the core module expected to be launched either next year or in 2019. It is too soon to say whether those programmes will be affected by the rocket failures.
Chinese have justifiably watched with pride the nation’s meteoric rise among space nations. In the 14 years since astronaut Yang Liwei made history by orbiting the Earth 21 times, there have been extraordinary achievements. An orbiter has navigated the moon and a rover has landed on it, a component for an orbital space station was launched and three astronauts, including China’s first woman in space, docked with it. But scientists lost control and a successor, Tiangong-2, was embarked upon and two astronauts spent 30 days aboard it last November to learn how to live and work in space.
China aims to land on the moon in the mid-2030s; it hopes to become a leading space power by about 2030. In doing so, there are bound to be more failures. But learning from mistakes is the only way to move confidently forward. Accepting risk and failure is the price that has to be paid to expand knowledge and advance technology.