Disaster at Xichang

An eyewitness speaks publicly for the first time about history’s worst launch accident

The main gate of the Xichang launch center, after the accident. American visitors saw hundreds of people gathered here before the launch. Chinese officials claimed they were evacuated in time. (Courtesy of Bruce Campbell)
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The majority of the American team traveled home within two days of the accident, but Campbell and several colleagues had to stay a few more weeks for the grim task of recovering satellite debris. Their primary goal was to prevent the Chinese from acquiring sensitive technology from the Intelsat satellite.

The morning after the accident, dressed in protective clothing with air bottles, toxicity sensors, and special bags for hazardous materials, they ventured to the crash site. “Shreds of twisted metal were everywhere, like confetti, only composed mostly of steel,” the diarist wrote. To keep the locals from collecting the debris, Chinese army soldiers lined up on the perimeter of the impact area and along the main railway line leading to the complex. “We were there with the Chinese, going over a routine of ‘This is ours, this is yours,’ ” Campbell remembers. “It was surprising how much of [the satellite] survived. The propellant tanks were intact, liquid apogee motor, solar panels, much of the structure...” All the parts were packed up for shipment back to the United States.

The cause of the accident was eventually traced to the rocket’s flight control system, but not before a military official on the Chinese launch team tried to shift the blame elsewhere. Campbell recalls that he “came in, thanked everybody for great friendship and cooperation, and said that ‘Everybody knows that when you light the rocket it goes straight up, so, obviously, outside influences had an effect.’ We all tried not to laugh.”

Two weeks after the accident, Xinhua, China’s official news agency, reported that the Intelsat-708 accident had left six dead and 57 injured. That, in fact, might be a realistic number for the casualties among the technical personnel involved in preparing the mission. We may never know how many local villagers died, although the numbers could easily have run into the hundreds, which would make the accident the worst disaster in launch history.

Since that day, the reliability of Long March rockets has greatly improved, although China never became a major player in the global commercial launch business. Bruce Campbell did go back to China for two successful launches of Loral-built satellites. He discovered that the village that used to border the launch center has disappeared, as if it never existed. There is no memorial to the victims, and their fate has never been mentioned in the state-controlled Chinese press.

Anatoly Zak is a journalist and illustrator specializing in the history of space exploration. He is the publisher of RussianSpaceWeb.com and the author of an upcoming book on the future of the Russian space program.


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