Rocket Malfunction Mars Chinese Space Program's Perfect Record

Article excerpt

CHINA has begun the most ambitious year ever in its commercial space program with a disclosure that its latest rocket launch has misfired.

A Long March 3 rocket failed to put a Chinese satellite in its proper orbit when its third stage malfunctioned on Dec. 28, the New China News Agency recently reported. The telecommunications satellite is in a low orbit and cannot perform its mission, Western aeronautics experts say.

Reports about the marooned satellite will not disrupt plans by Australia and Sweden to hire Chinese rockets this year, according to officials from the three countries.

But the mishap mars China's launch record at a time when United States and European officials are attempting to inhibit China's competitiveness in the cutthroat business of satellite launching, experts say.

US and European officials in recent years have pressured China to raise the price of its launch services, claiming it sets prices far below cost.

China "could have argued {to potential customers}, 'look at our record of both reliability and lower price,' but now that they have had a major accident they can't make that argument," says John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.

In addition, a worsening trade wrangle between the US and China could hamper efforts by Beijing to increase its share of the commercial launch services market, experts say. Washington and Beijing have threatened each other with tariffs in a bitter dispute over copyrights and other guarantees for "intellectual property."

Under US law, China must gain approval from the US president before importing satellites made in the US or constructed largely of US parts. The US is the world's leading maker of satellites.

President Bush last month lifted a ban on the shipment of some satellite parts in order to coax China into restricting the export of medium-range missiles.

But the trade dispute and efforts by the US Congress to make China's bilateral trade privileges contingent on improvement of its human rights record are likely to complicate attempts by China to import and launch additional US satellites, experts say.

"It would be very problematic," Dr. …