China’s controversial decision to keep the international community in the dark about its Long March 5B rocket’s return to Earth earlier this month is only the latest in a tradition of near-miss scenarios that the nation’s rocket programs have generated.
China told The Associated Press that the majority of the most recent rocket would burn up in the atmosphere and cause no harm, and Aljazeera reported that the remains landed harmlessly west of the South Asian country of Maldives in the Indian Ocean on May 9, ending speculation about where the debris would hit.
It was a different story last May, however.
According to Forbes, local accounts in the Ivory Coast reported that debris from a Long March 5B rocket plummeted into villages throughout the West African country.
Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Center for Astrophysics in Massachusetts, shared a picture of the alleged rocket debris on Twitter.
Reports of a 12-m-long object crashing into the village of Mahounou in Cote d’Ivoire. It’s directly on the CZ-5B reentry track, 2100 km downrange from the Space-Track reentry location. Possible that part of the stage could have sliced through the atmo that far (photo: Aminata24) pic.twitter.com/yMuyMFLfsv
— Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) May 12, 2020
Although this latest rocket fell into the Indian Ocean, others like it have dealt more terrifying ends.
Indeed, the situation is reminiscent of another, more horrifying incident from September 2020.
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It was then that another Long March booster rocket tumbled back to the ground in mainland China, reportedly exploding in a cloud of toxic gas near a school.
LaunchStuff shared footage of the incident on Twitter, in which some video appears to be taken from a school, and children can be heard yelling in the background as a plume of toxic orange smoke rises over the Chinese countryside.
Some impressive footage from today’s Long March 4B first stage return.
— LaunchStuff (@LaunchStuff) September 7, 2020
Unfortunately for the residents of the area, China has launched test rockets from its Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center since 1968 with seemingly no regard for human life, according to Ars Technica.
Unlike many launch sites, which are placed on coastlines for the safety of nearby residents, Taiyuan is over 300 miles inland. It is one of three such major inland launch centers that were built during the Cold War, according to Ars Technica, and which share the problem of jettisoning booster packs overland.
Journalist Andrew Jones shared footage from another incident in November 2019, this one in Xichang, when a booster from a Long March rocket allegedly crashed into a Chinese home, issuing a lethal plume of toxic smoke.
This is the aftermath downrange following a Chinese Long March 3B launch from Xichang early Saturday. And that yellow smoke is very toxic hypergolic propellant. Source: https://t.co/VEh5X8Ors0 pic.twitter.com/22IVIpyJOk
— Andrew Jones (@AJ_FI) November 23, 2019
The Chinese government reportedly issued evacuation warnings to locals before the launch, as well as statements telling residents not to approach the toxic smoke created by rocket propellant, according to Space News.
There is no shame in a rocket crashing or malfunctioning, as is bound to happen with the development of new technologies.
The Chinese habit of launching its rockets with apparent knowledge that rocket boosters could plummet onto populated regions, however, is another thing altogether.
There is something terribly wrong when government efforts to launch satellites are resulting in toxic clouds and shrapnel threatening homes, schools and foreign nations.
If China keeps sending its rockets up in such a fashion, a booster is bound to fall in a populated area.
China must be brought around to implement better safety standards to protect its own people and the international community as a whole from its apparent disregard for human life.