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China Launch Center May Be Unsafe

July 18, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) _ China’s satellite launch center lacked basic safety features and posed a constant danger to U.S. technicians and to thousands of peasants living nearby, according to newly declassified White House documents.

The searing assessment of China’s Xichang Satellite Launch Center was written by an engineer for the satellite consortium Intelsat, according to White House officials. Intelsat was using Chinese rockets to launch U.S.-built commercial satellites into orbit.

Chinese launch facilities ``fell pathetically short of the world standard in most areas,″ the engineer wrote. ``Every time you launch, you stand a good chance of killing someone.″ Citing repeated mishaps that led to fatalities, the engineer, Daniel Lilienstein, wrote: ``This kind of callous disregard for human life is unconscionable and should not be supported by satellite operators.″

The March 4, 1996, report was considered highly sensitive by U.S. officials because it was obtained, not through official channels, but through a source that might easily be traced. The report is potentially embarrassing to U.S. satellite makers because it points to a willingness to put up with a highly risky rocket operation in exchange for the lower launch prices charged by the Chinese.

Writing soon after the explosion and crash of a Chinese Long March rocket that was carrying a satellite built by Loral Space & Communications, Lilienstein, reported in harrowing detail on safety hazards at the launch site.

The Feb. 15, 1996, crash has become the center of a Justice Department criminal probe looking into whether a report on the accident given to China by U.S. satellite industry officials could benefit China’s long-range missile program.

Lilienstein’s assessment was part of a 6,000-page collection of documents sent Friday by the White House to congressional committees that are also investigating.

The Associated Press examined declassified portions of the documents.

The assessment portrays China’s launch center as ``a make-do kind of place″ that was poorly equipped and manned by under-trained workers. Lilienstein described uninsulated wiring, workers suffering frequent electrical shocks, windows exploding inward at the time of the rocket crash, and a real danger that the plummeting spacecraft could have slammed down on the mission control center.

The rocket exploded 22 seconds after liftoff from the center in southern China, carrying with it a $200 million satellite built by Loral to be used by Intelsat, a Washington-based 122-country communication services consortium. After the crash, which killed as many as 100 Chinese in a nearby village, Lilienstein and other engineers staggered around in a darkened building, its windows blown in and some of its doors no longer working after the blast.

U.S. officials have testified they were barred from the crash site for five hours, a concern among lawmakers who have questioned whether China may have recovered sensitive technology from the wreckage. Lilienstein said he and other U.S. technicians were barred from moving for nine hours.

Lilienstein said Chinese officials apparently had no program for warning or relocating villagers downrange from a satellite path. His report listed previous launch failures of Chinese Long March rockets, four of which resulted in several fatalities among base crew.

U.S. satellite makers were aware of these problems before committing their costly equipment to China for launch, Lilienstein wrote, but apparently accepted the risk because of the lower overall cost of Chinese commercial launchers.

Donald Phillips, a senior U.S. trade official, wrote in a March 1996 memo to Ambassador Jeffrey Lang, the deputy U.S. trade representative, ``we are asked to treat the document with great care since we could have only obtained it from a limited number of sources.″

Most of the documents sent to congressional investigative committees were generated by the White House National Security Council.

Various memos to the administration by Hughes Electronics, the largest U.S. commercial satellite maker, underscored the thousands of California jobs dependent on satellite exports, a factor that weighed heavily in an administration that ranked voter-rich California as the top political priority.

In 1994, Leon Fuerth, foreign policy adviser to Vice President Gore, told Gore in a handwritten note that the policy choice for the administration was to ``Damage these vital U.S. companies? Or gut the sanctions against China?″

The documents also show the administration was under pressure from lawmakers of both parties to allow a freer flow of high-tech exports to China and other Asian countries.

A September 1993 letter signed by then House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., and Minority Whip Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., urged Clinton to reconsider restrictions on the export of supercomputers, microchips, software, telecommunications technology, and communications encryption technology. Such technology was widely available from other Western nations, they said.

The other major portion of the latest White House document release concerned the administration’s 1996 decision to switch jurisdiction over satellite exports from the State Department to the Commerce Department.

The documents show that in exchange for shifting control of the satellite exports to Commerce, the State Department and Pentagon insisted on new, more stringent controls to prevent sensitive satellite technology from passing to the Chinese.

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