Jeffrey LewisBurmese Space Shuttle

I am doing a lot of work on Myanmar these days.  One of the most interesting phenomenon is how rumors tend to inspire people with fertile imaginations.

There are two cables from the US Embassy in Rangoon (Yangon) that are like that — in one leaked cable, an embassy contact notices unusual security and care taken with a shipment of ore, jumping to the conclusion that it must be uranium.  In the other leaked cable, an “expatriate businessman” concludes that a barge laden with rebar and an unusually long airport runway suggest, to him at least, that Magway must be the site of a clandestine nuclear reactor construction project.

The businessman was awestruck by the runway, near Magway, which he described as so grand that “you could land the space shuttle on it.”

So, I know this is hyperbole, but could you land the space shuttle on it?

The runway is visible in Google Earth and it is long — 2700 m.  That’s long enough to accommodate widebody aircraft, something that does seem a little out of place for Magway (population: 300,000).  But, there are plenty of  global runways that stretch for more than 4,000 m.

And, alas, 2700 m will not allow the space shuttle to land in Burma.   The runways for the shuttle typically stretch 4500 m.  (So, for example, the Air Force and NASA had to lengthen the comparatively stubby little 2100 meter runway at Vandenberg in the early 1980s.)

So, I guess we can cross space exploration off the list of nefarious Burmese activities — for now.

I kid, but this is a real problem.  Burma does have an interest in acquiring a research reactor and is sending students to train in Russia.  But the rumors, especially among democracy activists, are generating a lot of noise that is hard to filter out.  At least that’s how I read these two cables.


  1. FSB (History)

    Instead of their imaginations why don’t they listen to the people who already say they want weapons at the top of their voices: the Brazilians who also have not ratified the Additional Protocol.

    See the comments in your last post.

    I know we don’t want brown people to have the bomb, but, hey, the Brazilians are brown too.

  2. A Complete Stranger (History)

    Large runways always make me think of Grenada. I landed there several years after our invasion of that country and was VERY impressed with the size of its runway. Our 727 started to taxi almost before it landed, or so it seemed to me. It turns out that that runway is “only” 2850 meters. So I can sympathize with the ex-pat who was impressed with 2800 meters. That is, after all, long enough to start a war over.

    But your main point is correct. People have decided that Burma is up to no good (there are, after all, few regimes that care less about their people) and from that perspective, everything they do seems suspicious.

    • FSB (History)

      Indeed that is the modus operandi of the West: decide who you don’t like (Syria, Iran, Iraq, Burma…) and then invent things — even imaginary things — to harass them.

      Meanwhile our friends the Argentines and Brazilians spin their centrifuges sans Additional Protocol and all is jolly well, old chap.

      Nice to run the world like the Raj, eh, what?

      Tea please, Chandra.

  3. John Schilling (History)

    Well, if we’re being picky, Wilmington International Airport (KILM) is on the list of Space Shuttle emergency landing sites for high-inclination launches. The longest runway there is 2443 meters. So, it would seem to be possible to land a Space Shuttle at Magway. Ill-advised, yes, for many reasons.

    The truly suspicious activity along those lines, however, is the deliberate extension of the Mataveri airport runway to support large spacecraft operations. Did Easter Island have a covert nuclear weapons program in the 1980s, or were the Giant Stone Heads just preparing for visitors from home? The world wonders…

    • Jeffrey (History)


      “Recently, the shuttle could not have landed safely on Wilmington’s 8,007-foot (2,438-meter) main runway because it needed 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) of stopping room. But new carbon brakes brought the necessary space down to 7,500 feet (2,286 meters), Linde said.”

      Well, so, as long as the Burmese remember to outfit their orbiters with carbon brakes, it’s ok!

  4. Mercurius Cantabrigiensis (History)

    New Magway Airport may be a bit big for the town that shares its name, but it is a combined military & civil airfield.

    On the latest GoogleEarth photograph you can see what it probably the civil terminal and its hardstanding at the eastern side of the runway (about halfway up the length of the runway).

    There are six hardened aircraft shelters (three pairs) to the west of the northern end of the runway, and a simulate cluster to the west of its southern end. Also visible near the latter are five parked Chengdu J-7 jet fighters, Chinese copies of the Soviet-era MiG-21.

    The main runway is reported to be 8,000 ft long (2,440 m), a typical length for a military airfield.

  5. Kyaw (History)

    Most of the runways here seem unusually long because, as Mercurius Cantabrigiensis pointed out, they are for dual military-civilian use.

    Mandalay International Airport has a comically long 4267-metre runway, which I suppose is useful for the one international flight (from Kunming) it receives a day. However, larger military aircraft use it to fly cadets to Russia for training. Come to think of it, it’s nearly long enough for a shuttle….