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Satellite Launches in the PRC: Loral

page 1

Summary

On February 15, 1996, a Long March 3B rocket carrying the U.S.-built Intelsat 708 satellite crashed just after lift off from the Xichang launch center in the People's Republic of China. This was the third launch failure in 38 months involving the PRC's Long March series of rockets carrying U.S.-built satellite payloads. It also was the first commercial launch using the new Long March 3B. These events attracted intense attention from the international space launch insurance industry, and eventually led to a review of the PRC launch failure investigation by Western aerospace engineers.

The activities of the Western aerospace engineers who participated on the review team - the Independent Review Committee - sparked allegations of violations of U.S. export control regulations. The review team was accused of performing an unlicensed defense service for the PRC that resulted in the improvement of the reliability of the PRC's military rockets and ballistic missiles.

The Intelsat 708 satellite was manufactured by Space Systems/Loral (Loral) under contract to Intelsat, the world's largest commercial satellite communications services provider. Loral is wholly owned by Loral Space & Communications, Ltd.

China Great Wall Industry Corporation, the PRC state-controlled missile, rocket, and launch provider, began an investigation into the launch failure. On February 27, 1996, China Great Wall Industry Corporation reported its determination that the Long March 3B launch failure was caused by a broken wire in the inner frame of the inertial measurement unit within the guidance system of the rocket. In March 1996, representatives of the space launch insurance industry insisted that China Great Wall Industry Corporation arrange for an independent review of the PRC failure investigation.

In early April 1996, China Great Wall Industry Corporation invited Dr. Wah Lim, Loral's Senior Vice President and General Manager of Engineering and Manufacturing, to chair an Independent Review Committee that would review the PRC launch failure investigation. Lim then recruited experts to participate in the Independent Review Committee: four senior engineers from Loral, two from Hughes Space & Communications, one from Daimler-Benz Aerospace, and retired experts from Intelsat, British Aerospace, and General Dynamics.

The Independent Review Committee members and staff met with PRC engineers during meetings in Palo Alto, California, and in Beijing. During these meetings the PRC presented design details of the Long March 3B inertial measurement unit, and the committee reviewed the failure analysis performed by the PRC.

The Independent Review Committee took issue with the conclusions of the PRC investigation because the PRC failed to sufficiently explain the telemetry data obtained from the failed launch.

The Independent Review Committee members proceeded to generate a Preliminary Report, which was transmitted to China Great Wall Industry Corporation in May 1996 without prior review by any U.S. Government authority. Before the Independent Review Committee's involvement, the PRC team had concluded that the most probable cause of the failure was the inner frame of the inertial measurement unit. The Independent Review Committee's draft report that was sent to the PRC pointed out that the failure could also be in two other places: the inertial measurement unit follow-up frame, or an open loop in the feedback path. The Independent Review Committee recommended that the PRC perform tests to prove or disprove all three scenarios.

After receiving the Independent Review Committee's report, the PRC engineers tested these scenarios and, as a result, ruled out its original failure scenario. Instead, the PRC identified the follow-up frame as the source of the failure. The PRC final report identified the power amplifier in the follow-up frame to be the root cause of the failure.

According to the Department of Defense, the timeline and evidence suggests that the Independent Review Committee very likely led the PRC to discover the true failure of the Long March 3B guidance platform.

At the insistence of the State Department, both Loral and Hughes submitted "voluntary" disclosures documenting their involvement in the Independent Review Committee. In its disclosure, Loral stated that "Space Systems/Loral personnel were acting in good faith and that harm to U.S. interests appears to have been minimal." Hughes' disclosure concluded that there was no unauthorized export as a result of the participation of Hughes employees in the Independent Review Committee.

The materials submitted by both Loral and Hughes in their disclosures to the State Department were reviewed by several U.S. government offices, including the State Department, the Defense Technology Security Administration, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and other Defense Department agencies.

The Defense Department assessment concluded that "Loral and Hughes committed a serious export control violation by virtue of having performed a defense service without a license . . . "

The State Department referred the matter to the Department of Justice for possible criminal prosecution.

The most recent review of the Independent Review Committee matter was performed by an interagency review team in 1998 to reconcile differences in the assessments of the other agencies. That interagency team concluded:

  • The actual cause of the Long March 3B failure may have been discovered more quickly by the PRC as a result of the Independent Review Committee report
  • Advice given to the PRC by the Independent Review Committee could reinforce or add vigor to the PRC's design and test practices
  • The Independent Review Committee's advice could improve the reliability of the PRC's rockets
  • The technical issue of greatest concern was the exposure of the PRC to Western diagnostic processes, which could lead to improvements in reliability for all PRC missile and rocket programs

Intelsat 708 Launch Failure Loral Investigation Provides PRC With Sensitive Information

Overview of Events

On February 15, 1996, the Intelsat 708 satellite was launched on a Long March 3B rocket from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in the PRC.1 Even before clearing the launch tower, the rocket tipped over and continued on a flight trajectory roughly parallel to the ground.2 After only 22 seconds of flight, the rocket crashed into a nearby hillside, destroying the rocket and the Intelsat satellite it carried.

The crash created an explosion that was roughly equivalent to 20 to 55 tons of TNT. It destroyed a nearby village. According to official PRC reports, six people died in the explosion,3 but other accounts estimate that 100 people died as a result of the crash.4

The Intelsat 708 satellite was manufactured by a U.S. company, Space Systems/Loral (Loral), under contract to Intelsat, the world's largest commercial satellite communications services provider.5 In October 1988, Intelsat had awarded a contract to Loral to manufacture several satellites in a program known as Intelsat VII. That contract had a total value of nearly $1 billion.

Intelsat subsequently exercised an option under that contract for Loral to supply four satellites - known as the Intelsat VIIA series - including the Intelsat 708 satellite.6

In April 1992, Intelsat contracted with China Great Wall Industry Corporation for the PRC state-owned company to launch the Intelsat VIIA series of satellites into the proper orbit using PRC Long March rockets.7 Low price and "politics" were important factors in selecting the PRC launch services.8

In March 1996, following the Intelsat 708 launch failure, Intelsat terminated its agreement with China Great Wall Industry Corporation for additional launch services.9

The PRC's Launch Failure Investigation
China Great Wall Industry Corporation created two groups of PRC nationals to investigate the launch failure. These were the Failure Analysis Team and the Failure Investigative Committee. These two committees reported to an Oversight Committee.

On February 27, 1996, China Great Wall Industry Corporation reported its determination that the Long March 3B launch failure was caused by a failure in the inertial measurement unit within the control system of the rocket.10 The inertial measurement unit is a component that provides an attitude reference for the rocket, basically telling it which way is up.11

The Asia Pacific Telecommunications Insurance Meeting
On March 14, 1996, a group of space launch insurance representatives met in Beijing with representatives of Hughes, the PRC-controlled Asia Pacific Telecommunications Satellite Co., Ltd., and China Great Wall Industry Corporation. The purpose of the meeting was to examine the risks associated with the upcoming launch of the Apstar 1A satellite that was scheduled for July 3, 1996 on a Long March 3 rocket, in the wake of the February 15 Long March 3B crash.12

The PRC assured those at the meeting that the launch was not at risk because the Long March 3 rocket uses a different kind of inertial measurement unit than the one that failed on the Long March 3B.13

At that meeting, Paul O'Connor, from the J & H Marsh & McLennan insurance brokerage firm, reportedly insisted that the PRC do two things before the space insurance industry would insure future launches from the PRC: first, produce a final report on the cause of the Long March 3B launch failure; and second, arrange for an independent review of the PRC failure investigation.14

The PRC's Creation of an 'Independent Review Committee'
In early April 1996, China Great Wall Industry Corporation invited both Loral and Hughes Space & Communications (Hughes) to participate in an Independent Review Committee that would review the PRC launch failure investigation.15 The PRC then invited Dr. Wah Lim, Loral's Senior Vice President and General Manager of Engineering and Manufacturing, to chair the committee.16

Lim impaneled the Independent Review Committee with experts from Loral, Hughes, and Daimler-Benz Aerospace, and retired experts from General Dynamics, Intelsat, and British Aerospace.17

The Independent Review Committee's Meetings
The Independent Review Committee held two sets of official meetings.18 The first set of meetings was from April 22 to 24, 1996, at Loral's offices in Palo Alto, California.19 The second set of meetings was from April 30 to May 1, 1996, in Beijing.20

At these meetings, the Independent Review Committee members reviewed the extensive reports furnished by China Great Wall Industry Corporation documenting the PRC launch failure investigation, and provided the PRC with numerous technical questions regarding the material.21 The committee's activities also included tours of PRC assembly and test facilities for guidance and control equipment. The Independent Review Committee members caucused at their hotel in Beijing on April 30 to discuss and assess the PRC investigation privately.22

An aborted third round of Independent Review Committee meetings was scheduled for June 1996. However, the U.S. Government issued a cease and desist letter to both Loral and Hughes, ordering the companies to stop all activity in connection with the failure review. The letter also requested each company to disclose the facts related to, and circumstances surrounding, the Independent Review Committee.23

The Independent Review Committee activity was not authorized by any U.S. Government export license or Technical Assistance Agreement.24 Loral had obtained two export licenses (No. 533593 and No. 544724) from the State Department in 1992 and 1993 to allow the launch of the Intelsat 708 satellite in the PRC. Neither of those licenses authorized any launch failure investigative activity.25

Loral was aware from the start of the Independent Review Committee's meetings that it did not have a license for the Independent Review Committee activity.26

The Independent Review Committee meetings were not attended by any U.S. Government monitors, as almost certainly would have been required had there been an export control license.

The Independent Review Committee's Report
Lim had promised the PRC that the Independent Review Committee would report its preliminary findings by May 10, 1996.27 This deadline was driven by Loral's need to determine, by that date, whether its Mabuhay satellite would be launched on a PRC rocket as planned.

Following the meeting of the Independent Review Committee in Beijing, the committee members collaborated by facsimile and e-mail to generate a report of their findings. Loral engineer Nick Yen, who was the Secretary for the Independent Review Committee, collected input from the committee members and compiled the report. British committee member John Holt drafted the technical section of the report, with inputs from the other committee members.28

A draft of the Independent Review Committee Preliminary Report was completed by May 7, 1996; the Preliminary Report was completed on May 9, 1996.

Substance of the Preliminary Report
The Independent Review Committee's Preliminary Report was approximately 200 pages in length. It comprised:

  • Meeting minutes
  • Independent Review Committee questions and China Great Wall Industry Corporation answers
  • Findings
  • Short-term and long-term recommendations
  • The Independent Review Committee charter and schedule
  • The Independent Review Committee membership roster
  • Appendices29

The thrust of the recommendations presented in the report was:

Short-Term Recommendations30

1) An explanation of the total flight behavior is essential to fully confirm the failure mode. A mathematical numerical solution is recommended immediately, to be followed by a hardware in-the-loop simulation test when possible.

2) The detailed design of the motor and its wiring should be studied to either: a) preclude harness motion during gimbal motion or b) alleviate the impact of unavoidable deflection on solder joint integrity.

3) Higher quality control and quality standards in the manufacturing process need to be implemented and adhered to.

4) The China Academy of Launch Technology should re-examine the environmental test plan for all avionics equipment. It is the Independent Review Committee's opinion that the environmental tests performed by the China Academy of Launch Technology might not be adequate for meeting the requirements of the expected maximum flight loads, including acoustic noises, or detecting the defects in the flight hardware.

5) The Independent Review Committee is very concerned over the range safety issues in the areas of operation safety, launch safety and personal safety in general. Due to the difference in operations and requirements by various customers/satellite contractors of China Great Wall Industry Corporation, it is not suitable for the Independent Review Committee to make generic recommendations for overall implementation requirements. However, China Aerospace Corporation and China Great Wall Industry Corporation should carefully review the Action Items, #19, #20, and #21, of the first committee meeting and propose a well thought implementation plan to be reviewed, agreed, and accepted by China Great Wall Industry Corporation's individual customer/prime satellite contractor.

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