Photo via China News Service
Many space agencies prefer to launch over empty land or near the sea when given a choice, and China recently received a reminder as to why this is practised. A booster from a Long March 3B rocket fell and exploded near Xiangdu, a small southwestern town roughly 435 miles away from its pad that is located at the Xichang Satellite Launch Center. And while these kinds of incidents are not completely unheard of, this particular accident is one of the few times that the whole incident has been filmed for posterity. Some onlookers that were in a short distance away witnessed the booster fall down and create a massive fireball.
While there were no known property damage or casualties, this does not mean that it was safe. For one thing, China usually plans booster drop zones carefully and alerts (and in some cases, evacuates) the areas in order to make sure that no one gets hurt. This did not completely go according to plan. Moreover, the extremely toxic rocket fuel and secondary explosions posed various risks to the curious onlookers.
Not that China has much of choice regarding the matter. As the Atlantic explained, three of the launch facilities of China were opened during the Cold War, when concerns regarding attacks were a priority over absolute safety. That meant that setting up shop as far away from the international borders as possible, assuring that some launches would pose some risks to the populated areas. A disaster that happened in 1996 even sent a rocket directly into the town of Xichang. The accident killed at least six and injured dozens. China is currently building in safer areas (including one on the island of Hainan). However, it could be a while before these kinds of incidents become a thing of the past.