The United States Space Command has confirmed that an out-of-control Chinese rocket is down, bringing an end to a saga that has frightened people around the world in recent days.
On July 24, China launched their massive Long March 5B rocket to deliver the Wentian experiment module to China’s Tiangong Space Station. Unable to participate in the International Space Station (ISS) due to restrictions imposed by the United States, China has embarked on building their own called “Tiangong.” With the ISS due to be retired in the coming years, Tiangong may remain as the only working space station in Earth’s orbit.
Despite international condemnation of China’s last out-of-control rocket which struck Earth in May of last year, which followed another similar impact a year earlier in May of 2020, China has not employed any new technology or safety mechanisms to steer the rocket back to Earth safely, as SpaceX rockets do, or deposit rockets in the South Pacific ocean far from any land mass or ocean shipping routes, as what most rocket launchers around the world do when sending satellites into space.
In a brief statement released a short time ago, U.S. Space Command announced that they “can confirm the People’s Republic of China (PRC) Long March 5b (CZ-5B) re-entered over the Indian Ocean at approximately 10:45 am MDT on July 30.” They added, “We refer you to the PRC for further details on the reentry’s technical aspects such as potential debris dispersal and impact location.”
The U.S. Space Command is the 11th Combatant Command in the Department of Defense. The United States Space Command is the unified combatant command for all military space operations, while the United States Space Force is the military service responsible for organizing, training, and equipping the majority of forces for U.S. Space Command.
President Trump signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) on December 20, 2019, creating the U.S. Space Force in doing so. As the sixth branch of the U.S. military, it is nested within the Department of the Air Force, much like the Marine Corps is connected to the Department of the Navy. By creating a new, separate service with a dedicated purpose, the intent of the new branch is to maintain space superiority even as space becomes more crowded and contested. The NDAA also directs the Space Force “shall provide the freedom of operation in, from and to space, while providing prompt and sustained space operations.”
Then-Secretary of the Air Force Barbara M. Barrett praised the formal creation of the U.S. Space Force, identifying it as a critical capability in defending the nation and pledging that the first new branch of the military since 1947 would be established with speed and clarity of purpose. “The launch of an independent U.S. Space Force propels us into a new era dedicated to protecting U.S. national interests and security in space,” Barrett said. “We will work with (Department of Defense) leaders, Congress, our joint military teammates, industry and our national security partners as we establish the Space Force to ensure continued American leadership in space.”
By breaking out space resources from the Air Force, the new branch is expected to minimize bureaucratic overhead and maximize focus on operations, intelligence and fielding of advanced capabilities, saving money in the process through efficiencies. The Space Force will leverage the Air Force for more than 75% of its enabling functions to reduce cost and avoid duplication; this includes capabilities ranging from logistics, base operating support, civilian personnel management, business systems, IT support and audit agencies.
Both the U.S. Space Force and Space Command will be busy again later this year: China is scheduled to launch the same rocket type and technology later this year. Sometime in October, the PRC will launch a Chinese Long March 5B rocket to carry the Mengtian laboratory module to space. The Mengtian is the third major element of China’s space station in low Earth orbit. With the Mengtian module in space, construction of the PRC’s space station will be complete. Because China does not return rockets in a controlled manner, it is likely the globe will face a fresh threat of an out-of-control rocket then too.
In May 2021, NASA Administrator Senator Bill Nelson released a statement about the then-out-of-control Chinese rocket: “Spacefaring nations must minimize the risks to people and property on Earth of re-entries of space objects and maximize transparency regarding those operations. It is clear that China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris. It is critical that China and all spacefaring nations and commercial entities act responsibly and transparently in space to ensure the safety, stability, security, and long-term sustainability of outer space activities.”
Today, the NASA Administrator repeated those thoughts in a statement released this afternoon: ” The People’s Republic of China (PRC) did not share specific trajectory information as their Long March 5B rocket fell back to Earth. All spacefaring nations should follow established best practices, and do their part to share this type of information in advance to allow reliable predictions of potential debris impact risk, especially for heavy-lift vehicles, like the Long March 5B, which carry a significant risk of loss of life and property. Doing so is critical to the responsible use of space and to ensure the safety of people here on Earth.”