China’s spectacular, failed SLV test in context

Special to, July 3, 2024


By Richard Fisher

In China, space related crashes or falling debris from space launch vehicles (SLV) are not cause for celebration.

They are usually cause for embarrassment and as they usually happen over populated areas, they can also be very dangerous for Chinese especially if the crash involves explosions with hypergolic fuels toxic to lungs and skin.

On June 30, 2024 the Space Pioneer Corporation’s Tianlong-3 first stage configured for ground testing, broke its moorings taking off vertically but then crashed spectacularly. / Chinese Internet

China chose its space launch centers based on the ability to achieve the best trajectories for a target orbit and, save for Wencheng Satellite Launch Center (WSLC) on Hainan Island near the ocean, space launches by necessity travel over large populated areas, posing a constant hazard.

Often, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) reaction has been to cover up a crash event if possible as any loss of life is callously deemed acceptable in order to advance the space power of the Party.

Nevertheless, crash events and fallen debris are recorded with some frequency, usually by Chinese citizens using their cell phones, and attract considerable attention and dismay on Chinese social media.

On June 30, China was treated to another spectacular SLV crash though this time it was likely a benefit for the company involved, which had an opportunity to “fail forward.” That strategy of using SLV crashes to perfect their vehicles has been championed by the United States SpaceX Corporation.

This most recent Chinese SLV crash was embarrassing on one level for the five-year old Space Pioneer company in that its Tianlong-3 (Heavenly Dragon) SLV was never supposed to leave the ground, but its did so in a controlled manner that certainly yielded useful test data.

Space Pioneer was conducting a fixed to the ground test at its Gongyi Engine Test Facility in Henan Province, of the first stage of its Tianlong-3, a 3.8-meter diameter, 9x engine Kerosene/Oxygen (Kerolox) powered SLV, when it broke from its fairings and traveled like a SLV to several thousand feet.

One might almost suspect that this “failure” was intentional in that the Tianlong-3 moorings broke simultaneously allowing for a direct vertical ascent (and descent); it did not tip over or launch into the air at a steep angle.

Reportedly, the area around the Gongyi Engine Test Facility was evacuated, perhaps a usual precaution, but one that could also facilitate an intentional “failed” test.

Though viewed as a test failure, Space Pioneer would have received considerable data useful for future missions.

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