Xu Liping checks a tool used to process highly explosive solid propellant designed for use in rocket engines at the Xi'an Aerospace Chemical Propulsion Factory in Shaanxi province.
Veteran technician processes propellant for nation's ballistic missiles
Designing a ballistic missile is no easy task - in fact, it takes a rocket scientist. But equally important are the teams working behind the scenes, ensuring that the weapons function properly.
Xu Liping leads a team of propellant-processing technicians at the Xi'an Aerospace Chemical Propulsion Factory in Northwest China's Shaanxi province, which is part of the Academy of Aerospace Solid Propulsion Technology under China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp.
Every working day, the 48-year-old and his colleagues deal with one of the most dangerous materials on earth - highly explosive solid propellant designed for use in rocket engines. To the uninitiated, their work may not seem all that glamorous, but it is essential for the assembly of a properly functioning missile.
Nowadays, a large proportion of the work they do is automated, but the most delicate procedures must still be done by hand.
Using small tools, they carefully clean and trim the surfaces of the propellants, as any cracks or imperfections could lead to uneven combustion within the final rocket that would cause it to deviate from its trajectory or explode in midair.
Xu and his team must also always be mindful that even the smallest slip of the hand at the wrong moment could result in a devastating explosion capable of destroying their entire workshop.
“We must all be familiar with the propellants' traits. Our work requires an extremely high level of concentration and caution because the things we trim are highly inflammable - some kinds of propellants will ignite even if you roll a small steel ball on their surface,” he said.
“Every time we enter the workshop, we put on special uniforms and make sure we are wearing nothing that could generate a electrostatic spark. When we operate on the propellants we are very slow. There is nothing on our mind except the trimming procedures.”
Because of the patience and skills required, each new member of Xu's team has to complete a three-year apprenticeship before they are qualified to work alone.
All have gone on to become skilled technicians, according to Han Shuo, a former pupil himself. Yet Xu, who has been in the business for 30 years, is still considered “the master”, and is always called upon first when propellant for a newly developed rocket needs to be processed, Han said.
The proudest moment for the team came in 2015, Xu said, when they watched on television as the strategic ballistic missiles they had worked on were paraded in front of the Tian'anmen Square in Beijing.
“In addition to professionalism and a sense of pride, we also nurture the spirit of innovation and creativity among our young people,” he said.
Zhang Kangzhu, vice-president of the academy, said Xu's devotion and dedication to his work were an inspiration to all. He said the academy's younger employees could learn much from Xu, adding that those who attained his level of professionalism and creativity would receive rapid promotion.