A Changzheng 5B rocket, carrying a space shuttle and a cargo return capsule, lifts off from a launch center in Hainan on Tuesday. Photo: Xinhua

China’s ambitious new plan to construct a space station of its own, unveiled by President Xi Jinping on Tuesday, suffered a humiliating early stumble one day after a colossal transportation rocket blasted off from a cosmodrome on the southern island of Hainan.

The Changzheng (Long March) 5B heavy transportation rocket had its successful maiden voyage into space from Wenchang Satellite Launch Center in Hainan at dusk on Tuesday. The 53-meter rocket catapulted its 22-ton payload – a space shuttle, an experimental cargo return capsule and other equipment – into the low Earth orbit (LEO) about 2,000 kilometers above the ground in a little over eight minutes after its liftoff.

A congratulatory letter jointly issued by the Communist Party’s Central Committee, State Council and Central Military Commission, the command and control of the People’s Liberation Army, hailed the mission as a head start of the third stage of China’s crewed space program led by Xi. The first stage was manned space launches, realized in 2003 when Yang Liwei became the first Chinese national to enter space, and the second phase of conducting extravehicular activities – or a space walk – as well as a rendezvous mission, was achieved in 2008 during the Shenzhou 7 mission and in 2017 with the Tiangong 2 space lab.

The letter said numerous researchers and technicians had pulled off a successful launch despite all the challenges arising from the Covid-19 pandemic and that the new orbital-class rocket, tailored-made to launch modules of China’s future space station with the highest LEO payload capacity, would be a morale boost for all Chinese people. The same rocket will also launch China’s first Mars rover and a lunar sample return probe by the end of the year.

Yet less than 19 hours into the ongoing mission, a cargo return capsule roughly the size of a compact car designed to ferry supplies and even taikonauts reportedly “malfunctioned” while piercing through the atmosphere during its reentry on Wednesday.

No more details are known about the incident as Chinese media seek to downplay it. Xinhua only noted that experts had been crunching and analyzing related data to ascertain the cause. Yet bits of information have started to filter through from the Wenchang facility that the glitch could be linked to the thermal management system.

The payload of the rocket and its fairing, seen during a test before Tuesday’s launch.
The cargo return capsule has an umbrella-shaped, inflatable thermal protection shield. Photos: Handouts

The return glider, unlike the previous generations used in China’s manned space flights since 2003, features small steering devices for maneuvering early in the re-entry as well as a novel thermal protection design with an inflatable, low-mass layer to shield the spacecraft and its content from the extreme heat caused by air friction.

Chinese state media previously reported that the flexible, parachute-like protective layer could be inflated to insulate the skin of the capsule when it shoots through the atmosphere and can be detached while the capsule remains aloft.

The layer may have failed to deploy in time to protect the capsule, the fate of which is still unknown, with the worst-case scenario being that it was completely incinerated during reentry.

Two state-owned aerospace conglomerates, China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp and China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp, were tasked with the research & development and launch of the new rocket and its payload. The launch and reentry were meant to put to test key components and technology vital in shuttling people and cargo to and from the further Chinese space station, the Tiangong, slated to be up and running by 2022.

China aims to use powerful rockets like the Changzheng 5B to launch modules for its space station, slated to be up and running in 2022. Photo: Handout
Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks to taikonauts during a manned mission in 2013. Photo: CCTV screen grab

The stumble is the latest in a series. China’s trek to space has been hobbled by three accidents within two months. The Changzheng 7A and Changzheng 3B rockets both failed to conquer the Earth’s gravity to reach their orbits in separate launches in March and April.

Ryan Clarke, a senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s East Asia Institute, told Asia Times that the hiccup was unlikely to hold back China’s ambitious space program and that the country may have another try shortly.

“Unlike other countries, Chinese SOEs carry out these projects with ample funding and resources on offer and other than the party, they report to no one… Space exploration and constructing a Chinese space station have become a national priority,” said Clarke.

He added that more failures would be hard to avoid as China presses ahead with its plan to launch components for its own space station and when China’s access to advanced parts and technology in the West is being curtailed.

He said the capsule accident should not undermine the significance of the successful launch of the Changzheng 5B, as related technology could be easily applied for military use.

Xinhua reported on Thursday that despite the setback, an unmanned prototype for the country’s next-generation crew shuttle launched atop the Changzheng 5B would continue to raise its orbit to 5,000 km from the ground and unfurl its power-generating solar panels and antenna. It will return on Friday and land in China’s northern Inner Mongolia region, if everything goes as planned.

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