California nonprofit The Aerospace Corporation has published estimations of China’s Tiangong-1 space lab’s return to Earth, and according to data we’re not looking at a controlled, calculated return. Satellite trackers have been showing clues the lab has actually been in an uncontrolled orbit since 2016, and China’s Manned Space Engineering Office itself announced that the lab would re-enter Earth’s atmosphere by late 2017. Now it should mostly burn up on re-entry, and the odds of any pieces that remain actually striking and harming anyone should be almost zero, it’s far from what astronomer and frequent commentator on space activity Jonathan McDowell called “best practice”.
Now, we’re talking the Chinese government here and they have the luxury of being able to ignore what just about anyone thinks should an incident occur. Why I thought it an interesting story for our crisis management blog is this – every day we come across organizations that certainly do not have the luxury of ignoring audiences like legislators, regulators, customers, and the media should they gamble on chance and lose. Yet, we still hear statements like, “The odds of that are so low it’ll never happen”. Look, the chances are winning the Powerball are 1 in 292,201,338, yet it seems like every time someone who randomly bought a single ticket playing their grandkid’s birthdays takes the prize. Things that are extremely low probability happen on a regular basis, and if you KNEW it was a possibility and choose to not do anything then it’s your fault for not preventing the near-impossible.