NASA Reacts to China's Uncontrolled Rocket Splashdown 'Landing'

After China's Long March 5B rocket debris landed near the Maldives, NASA's administrator voiced his concerns.
Fabienne Lang

After debris from China's Long March 5B rocket splashed down near the Maldives in the Indian Ocean at approximately 10:24 PM EST on Saturday night (02:24 AM GMT Sunday morning), NASA has spoken out against the uncontrolled landing. 

NASA Administrator, Ben Nelson, said in a statement on Sunday, May 9, that "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," he continued. 

Carrying on, Nelson explained how he, and NASA believe spacefaring nations should act, "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."

China's Long March 5B rocket's landing

The rocket launched on April 29, carrying with it the Tianhe module of the future Chinese Space Station, which is set to be operational by 2022. The rocket transporting the module, the Long March 5B, was always meant to make an uncontrolled fall back down to Earth, making it one of the largest ever uncontrolled re-entries of a space machine.

As we previously reported, the Foreign Ministry of China stated on Friday, May 7 that most of Long March 5B's payload would burn up upon re-entering the atmosphere, and that whatever was left to fall back down to Earth would most likely not cause any damage. 

Luckily, that remark turned out to be true, as it appears the debris landed into the Ocean. However, when parts of a rocket fall in an uncontrolled manner back down to Earth, thus to civilization, uncertainty always plays a big part. Until the rocket is actually descending to Earth, it's hard to tell where exactly it'll land.

This, as NASA's Administrator pointed out, should not be something left to chance. 

Uncontrolled landings

Given this isn't China's first uncontrolled re-entry, it's little surprise Nelson is speaking up about such potentially dangerous ways of carrying out space operations. Back in 2018, China's Tiangong-1 space station plunged to Earth into the Pacific Ocean in a similar fashion, and its Tiangong-2 was also deorbited in a crash landing in 2019, but that time, in a controlled manner. There was no harm reported for either of those landings. 

However, to date, the largest uncontrolled re-entry in orbit of a space machine was actually carried out by NASA itself in 1979, when its Skylab space station fell down to Earth. At the time, the agency wasn't able to pinpoint the exact landing spot, which could have been disastrous given the space station weighed a mighty 100 tons. It ultimately splashed into the Indian Ocean near Australia's west coast.

It looks like NASA has turned the page on the incident, and it hopes that other nations will follow suit with their methods.

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