Pentagon Warns of China Failure Risks, As Chinese Woman Astro Set for Launch

Quality control technician checks Long March 2F set to launch the Shenzhou 9 astronauts in mid June at the Jiuquan launch site.

China’s aggressive satellite production and launch pace is threatening launch vehicle failures and the malfunction in orbit of important spacecraft, according to a largely classified Defense Dept. report to Congress.

The report comes as China is poised for an extremely high profile mission, the launch into space of China’s first woman astronaut as early as mid June.

Examples of failures stemming from the growing risk factors are cited in an unclassified summary of the 2012 Pentagon report titled “Military and Security Developments of the People’s Republic of China”.

The Pentagon warning about increased launch risk raises memories of the Long March 3B that in 1996 lifted off from Xichang carrying an Intelsat spacecraft then immediately pitched over horizontally and flew into a nearby town where it exploded killed an estimated 200 people. Photo Credit: CCTV

The Congress mandates such an annual report on China, but no previous reports have warned of an increased chance of failures due to rapidly growing Chinese space operations.

The U. S., Russia and Japan have all at times experienced a run of launch and spacecraft failures as a result of too ambitious development and scheduling. The Pentagon sees something similar happening now in China.

The new report says that “China’s space and counterspace programs are facing challenges in reliability” and that “a recent surge in the number of China’s space launches may be taking its toll” on launch success.

The report comes as China is preparing to launch its first Shenzhou astronaut crew to the Tiangong 1 space outpost, a mission where the need for stiff quality control and safe practices are paramount.

Long March 2F for manned Shenzhou launch is transported to pad with Chinese Vehicle Assembly Building in background. They painted it exactly like the Kennedy Space Center VAB as a dig to the U. S. space program. Photo Credit: Reuters /China Daily

The liftoff of the three person Shenzhou 9 crew, is to occur as early as June 17.  The Tiangong outpost’s orbit will naturally decay down to the desired 208 mi. altitude for a Shenzhou rendezvous at that time.

China’s first woman astronaut is be part of the crew that is to spend about 10 days in space, several days of it docked with Tiangong 1. Two women are vying for the prime crew slot, Liu Yang and Wang Yaping.

In 2013 China is planning to launch Tiangong 2, its second small outpost and then three Shenzhou manned crews to dock with it or Tiangong 1.

Chinese women astronauts Liu Yang and Wang Yaping are vying for the Shenzhou 9 prime crew selection. The one not selected will move to Shenzhou 10 set for launch in 2013. Photo Credit: Xinhua

China’s manned program has so far avoided failures, but the Chinese have just pulled back from a previously issued schedule to  launch the Shenzhou 10 mission in 2012, instead moving it to 2013.  That could indicate an even  more cautious buildup in Tiangong manned space flight operations. China’s second women astronaut is to be on Shenzhou 10.

Citing specific failures as examples of growing risks, the 2012 China military power document also says that “Communications satellites using China’s [most advanced satellite bus] the DFH-4, have experienced failures leading to reduced lifespan or total loss of the satellite.” The report also cites the last August 18 failure of a Long March 2C carrying the Saijian 11-4 spacecraft,  planned to be part of an advanced military eavesdropping constellation.

The Saijian launch was the third space mission launched by China within a span of seven days when that accident happened.  China plans to launch as many as three more of the electronic intercept satellites by the end of 2012.

After the accident, it took the Chinese a month to return to Long March launch operations. A Chinasat DFH-4 military satcom was the first mission after the failure,  but it took nearly three months for China to return to high rate military operations with the launch of  a Yaogan imaging satellite last  Nov. 9.


The Pentagon noted that several failures of Chinese DFH-4 geosynchronous orbit spacecraft like this one indicate risks are growing on the satellite development side. Photo Credit: Xinhua

Since the August 2011 failure, the Chinese have launched a total of 15 space missions 11 of them military. Nine of these flights have been launched in 2012. Of these missions, 7 of them have been military with as many as 10 other military satellites still to be launched in 2012.

In comparison the U. S. has so far launched 5 missions in 2012, all of them military, and plans to launch 11 additional missions, 5 of these military.

China has returned to an aggressive launch pace where the concerns raised by the Defense Dept. are a significant factor. The unclassified version of the report cites the two examples, but it is likely U. S. intelligence agencies have collected substantially more classified data to back up the report’s conclusions.

These include reconnaissance satellite imagery and data intercepted  from test stands firing individual rocket engines or complete stages with their engines.

The National Security Agency is also likely monitoring the telemetry of  high priority Chinese spacecraft and communications between satellite control teams. This should enable U. S. intelligence analysts to determine if systems on those spacecraft are malfunctioning.

Rare image shows the inside of the Tiangong 1 module that is to be entered for the first time by the Shenzhou 9 crew launching about June 17. Chinese technician is documenting the interior. Photo Credit: China Pictorial

Such risk assessments also involve carefully tracking component production and performance rates and where the Chinese are working to use western components instead of Chinese parts or electronics in critical areas. It also involves tracking the number of personnel involved in quality control and eavesdropping on communications between program managers and higher level supervisors.

I have seen many Chinese quality control problems first hand during six trips to China over the last 25 years.  I have visited three separate Long March booster plants, two near Beijing and another in Shanghai and twice visited a major rocket engine test center with several test stands outside of Beijing .

Over the course of this China travel I also visited the Shanghai Long March plant twice and one of the Beijing rocket plants twice.  In one of the Beijing plants, the Chinese were making Long March boosters and ballistic missiles on one part of the floor and refrigerators for consumers on another part of the same floor.

I have also been in satellite development plants and control centers in Beijing, Shanghai and Xian. These visits have all been fascinating as well as eye-opening about Chinese quality control or lack of it.

Long March 4 booster manufactured in Shanghai has polar orbit weather satellite built in Xian mounted on its nose for launch from Taiyuan. This specific spacecraft failed just a month after launch. Photo Credit: Xinhua

When looking over Chinese launchers and rocket engines I have often found large, scary, welds along rocket tank seams and on rocket engine pumps held together by large metal straps.

It was obvious that Chinese failures on test stands and in flight were being solved by brute force methods, after the fact.

Surreptitious “white glove” tests in Chinese “clean rooms” turned up ample evidence of dust and sometimes outright dirt.  In a weather satellite plant in Xian, they gave me a clean room coat, cap and booties along with white gloves—which promptly revealed black dust on a test bench holding a shining new polar orbit weather satellite.

Chinese clean room standards are increasing dramatically with the advent of manned spacecraft like the Tiangong 1 station shown before launch and ready to be occupied in space about mid June. Photo Credit: Xinhua

In one Beijing clean room where a film return imaging satellite was being assembled , Chinese technicians were in white coats and hats. But during a visit by my group,  a large garage door in the room opened exposing the clean room to the dusty air of busy street outside to let in a People’s Liberation Army truck with dirty tires. The Chinese technicians paid no attention this horrendous breach of “clean room” protocol.

Visits to Beijing’s two Long March plants were always secretive and mysterious. During one such visit myself and Mike Cabbage now with NASA,  found ourselves in a minibus enroute to the Chinese rocket plant—with a dozen Iranians.

Through the mid 1990s the Chinese were experiencing serious rocket failures including the pad abort of a Long March 2 that killed or severely injured a number of pad technicians who rushed into a red cloud of fuming nitric acid without any protection to manually shut down fuel valves.

Clouds of highly toxic red fuming nitrogen tetroxide or nitric acid like that which killed or injured launch pad personnel during one Chinese launch billow from climbing Long March 3B at Xichang.

In January 1995 a  Xichang launch failure dropped debris that killed six villagers, an accident that was followed in 1996 by the failure of a massive Long March 3B that veered sharply off its Xichang launch pad at liftoff and flew intact with a full propellant load directly into a nearby town killing an estimated 200 people. The village was supposed to have been fully evacuated, but was not.

I was at Xichang before these accidents, one of the first Americans to ever visit a Chinese launch site. It was obvious that nearby villages were at risk and I was told by launch managers  that to evacuate villages before launches they stage “cultural events” to draw people to safer areas, but it did not always work.

That failed Long March 3B was carrying the Intelsat 708 spacecraft and the American Space System Loral lead manager in China wrote a scathing resignation letter to his management about how they had ignored his earlier sharp warnings about serious quality control problems at the launch site.

But two visits 10 years apart to the same Shanghai Long March plant turned up positive changes. During the mid 1980s the plant was a secretive place with horse drawn wagons circling outside.

Chinese rocket engines of Long March 3A are visible as stage is lifted toward launch pad. Chinese engine pumps have their turbopumps held together by belt-like bands, a sign of development failures. Photo Credit: Xinhua

But by the latter 1990s after the Long March 3 launch failures, the Shanghai plant was making Long March 4s mostly for military polar orbit launches. Despite this it was a more open place with a top manager happy to discuss quality control issues and the plant’s plan to adopt U. S./West European quality control standards.

As in Shanghai the whole Chinese rocket program went through a period of reforms that resulted in 75 consecutive successful launches between August 1996 and August 2009 when an upper stage failure finally ended the string.

The fact the U. S. Defense Dept. is now seeing new warning signs of  potential failures on the horizon may be one case where American intelligence is doing the Chinese a favor.

Illustrating this intensive pace that is of concern, Chinese launches so far this year include the most recent four missions, all launched within days of each other.

Long March 4 lift's off from snowy Taiyuan with a military imaging satellite headed for polar orbit. Photo Credit: Xinhua

The Chinese space missions launched so far in 2012 are:

–The May 29 launch of the Yaogan 15 military imaging spacecraft on board a Shanghai built Long March 4C (like that shown above) fired into polar orbit from the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center

–The May 26 launch from Xichang of a Long March 3B carrying the Chinasat 2A military communications satellite.

–The May 10 launch from Taiyuan of a Long March 4B carrying the Tianhui 1B military mapping satellite.

–The May 6 launch from Jiuquan of a Long March 2D carrying the Tianhui 1 military mapping satellite to work in connection with a similar spacecraft launched May 10.

–The April 29 launch of a Long March 3B from Xichang carrying two Compass navigation satellites.

–The March 31 launch from Xichang of a Long March 3B/E rocket carrying the Apstar communications satellite.

—The Feb. 24 launch from Xichang of a Long March 3C carrying a Compass navigation satellite.

–The Jan. 12 launch from Xichang of a Long March 3A carrying the FenYun 2F geosynchronous orbit weather satellite like that shown below.

–The Jan. 8 launch of a Long March 4B from Taiyuan carrying the ZiYuan 3 high resolution imaging spacecraft.

Chinese geosynchronous orbit weather satellite is mounted in Long March shroud for launch from Xichang. Photo Credit: China Defense Mashup.Com







  1. I think it’s par for the course to a degree. Every nation will forge ahead trying to compete, and every nation will make mistakes and have the odd disaster. It’s a matter of statistics if nothing else.

    China hasn’t really had a choice as America vetoed them being allowed into the international space station program.

    Although some have criticized Americas decision on this point, the fact of the matter is China would have initiated their own space program anyway, and would have taken what ever technical knowledge they obtained for use in their own space program.

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