China’s LandSpace Denies Rocket Test Explosion Rumor

Chinese space launch provider claims the incident was a normal rocket fuel tank pressure test.
China’s LandSpace Denies Rocket Test Explosion Rumor
A rocket carrying two satellites lifts off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in Gansu Province, northwest China, on July 25, 2019. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)
Jessica Mao
Chinese private space launch provider LandSpace conducted a test of rocket fuel tanks in Shanghai, China, on Jan. 29, which reportedly injured three workers and led to rumors of an explosion. However, LandSpace denied that there was an explosion and claimed that the test went as expected.
According to residents, there was a loud boom that night, and the sound could be heard within a 6-mile radius.
“My windows were shaking badly, and then there was the sound of fire trucks in the street,” one resident wrote on the Chinese social media platform Weibo. “It felt like an earthquake or enormous thunder to me,” said another user.

On Jan. 30, LandSpace responded to allegations of an explosion, saying that the incident was a normal rocket fuel tank pressure test and that there was no explosion. A LandSpace representative told the media that the test “left some glass damaged and three production personnel with minor scratches.” The local government also said that no explosion occurred.

LandSpace’s claim drew widespread scrutiny on China’s heavily censored social media. Many questioned why a normal test would lead to three injured workers and shattered glass in the neighborhood.

U.S.-based China current affairs commentator Qin Peng told the Chinese edition of The Epoch Times on Feb. 1 that although Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials attempted to dismiss the rumor and claim that everything was normal, there was indeed an explosion judging from public reaction and the level of damage caused.

“The [CCP] officials were only trying to downplay the incident to avoid drawing too much attention from the public, while at the same time needing to provide a seemingly reasonable explanation,” Mr. Qin said. “In reality, they are only deceiving themselves and others.”

Wang Juntao, chairman of the China Democracy Party, also told the Chinese edition of The Epoch Times that, under normal circumstances, an investigation should have been launched. However, under the totalitarian rule of the CCP, the regime controls all relevant departments and therefore no independent investigation can be conducted. In such an environment, the people are naturally skeptical of all claims from the authorities.

Self-Proclaimed Private Company

LandSpace Technology Corporation was founded in June 2015. LandSpace, according to its official website, is China’s leading commercial company in the creation and operation of aerospace transportation systems. It claims to be the country’s first private space launch provider.

In October 2018, a LandSpace rocket, Zhuque-1, was launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in China but failed to deliver the commercial satellite it was carrying into space orbit. On July 2023, LandSpace’s Zhuque-2 was successfully launched, making it the first methane-fuelled launch vehicle in the world to reach orbit.

Currently, LandSpace’s Shanghai Research and Development Center is mainly focused on a liquid-rocket propulsion system. This was the facility where the alleged explosion took place.

Mr. Qin believes that a company like LandSpace can never be a truly private company in China. “Anyone who knows China knows that it’s not a private company,” he said. “It disguises itself as a private company, but it is actually involved in [China’s] defense industry. So, a company like LandSpace is really just trying to hide behind a facade, to capture talent from around the world, and to engage in international cooperation.”

Mr. Wang also believes that no truly large private companies exist in China, as successful big businesses must maintain strong ties with the CCP. Therefore, even though these companies’ asset structures appear to be privately owned, they are backed by the regime and used as tools for the CCP.

He further explained that operating under the guise of being “private” serves two main purposes for these companies. Firstly, it allows them to utilize private capital for developing cutting-edge technologies without incurring costs for the regime. Secondly, it enables them to more effectively exploit the resources and rules of the international market, taking advantage of loopholes that would be off-limits to a Chinese state-owned enterprise.

Competing Against the West

The founder and CEO of LandSpace, Zhang Changwu, does not have a background in technology; instead, he comes from the finance and banking sector. Mr. Zhang is a graduate of China’s Tsinghua University and has worked at HSBC and the Santander Group.
In July 2018, Jiemian News, a Chinese media outlet, published an article about Mr. Zhang. It revealed that his foray into the commercial rocket industry was inspired by the chairman of LandSpace, Wang Jianmeng, who was formerly a senior aerospace engineering engineer at the China Satellite Launch and Tracking Control General. Mr. Zhang began laying the groundwork for a commercial rocket company in 2013, and by 2015, he had secured a business license for LandSpace, which was established in Beijing.

Significantly, in 2014, the CCP’s State Council announced its support for private capital involvement in the research, development, launch, and operation of commercial satellites, indicating that China’s commercial spaceflight sector has received policy backing from the CCP.

Before this development, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos established the private spaceflight company Blue Origin in 2000, followed by Elon Musk founding SpaceX, a space technology company, in 2002.

In 2015, Mr. Musk first proposed the Starlink project, aimed at establishing a global network of communication systems. Similarly, in 2019, Amazon announced Project Kuiper, which aims to provide internet services worldwide through a constellation of satellites.

The successful launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket in 2018, coupled with the announcement that the company had begun to turn a profit, catapulted commercial rockets into the global spotlight.

Mr. Zhang told Jiemian News that since 2002, the United States’ capacity for space launches has been fully transferred to private companies, significantly strengthening America’s dominance in space. As for commercial launches, the United States has outperformed other countries, including China. Price-wise, American private rocket launches cost about 50 to 60 percent of what China’s do. Moreover, SpaceX has successfully launched the world’s largest rocket. “So the pressure on China is quite obvious,” he said.

“The CCP is seeking to catch up in space technologies in order to compete with the United States and Europe for space dominance,” Mr. Qin said. “Companies like SpaceX have made significant progress in the efficiency of launching rockets and satellites. So, China is also aiming to achieve better efficiency at a lower cost.”

Xin Ning contributed to this report.