The Associated Press June 29, 2006
China Shows Off Secretive Space Program
By Joe McDonald
BEIJING — China gave reporters a glimpse of the heart of its space program Wednesday _ including a rare appearance by its first astronaut _ a charm offensive aimed at persuading Washington to allow Beijing a role in international space projects.
Foreign journalists were taken on a 90-minute closely chaperoned tour of the mission control center on the outskirts of Beijing that has run two manned space flights since 2003 and an adjacent astronaut training school.
The tour adds to a lobbying campaign by Beijing, which is trying to win more access for its scientists to U.S. aerospace conferences and possibly a role in the International Space Station by allaying foreign unease about its military-linked program.
"This is certainly much more important than what has previously been done by China," said Charles Vick, a space analyst for the Washington think tank GlobalSecurity.org. "By opening up, they relieve problems and bring about the prospect of cooperation."
The highlight of the tour was a 15-minute appearance by Col. Yang Liwei, his first encounter with Western reporters since he made history in 2003 as China's first astronaut in orbit.
Yang stressed China's desire for "peaceful development of space" _ a theme echoed by officials throughout the tour.
"We hope to further our exchanges with our counterparts in foreign countries and learn from each other," said Yang, who wore a gray business suit instead of the bright blue flight suit known to Chinese television audiences.
The manned space program is a key prestige project for communist leaders. Yang's 21-hour flight made China only the third country able to send a human into orbit on its own, after the U.S. and Russia. He was followed last October by astronauts Nie Haisheng and Fei Junlong, who spent five days in orbit before landing by parachute in China's northern grasslands.
But the larger space effort also has military aims, including spy satellites. Washington has objected to a Chinese role in the International Space Station and is reluctant to share any know-how that might be used to improve Beijing's ballistic missiles.
U.S. officials got their first look at the space command center in early 2004, when Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was given a tour. Reporters traveling with Myers were barred from taking photos.
Later that year, foreign reporters were allowed their first, and so far only, visit to the remote Gobi Desert base where China launches its manned rockets.
This April, NASA administrator Michael Griffin said he had accepted a Chinese invitation for talks on possible cooperation. A Chinese space official was quoted by state media as saying he hoped Griffin's visit would lead to more Chinese scientists being granted U.S. visas to attend aerospace conferences. No date has been set for Griffin's visit.
China carries on space projects with other nations, including a pair of scientific satellites launched with the European Space Agency and an Earth-mapping project with Brazil.
The next Chinese manned space flight is due next year. Officials say they also want to send up a space station and land a robot probe on the Moon by 2010.
At mission control, rows of technicians' desks equipped with computer screens stood empty Wednesday. A wall-mounted video screen showed scenes of Nie and Fei aboard their Shenzhou VI capsule.
At the astronaut school, which its director called the "key site" for training, Yang met reporters in a three-story-high room with a full-size model of a Shenzhou capsule for practice.
"The development of manned space flight and space resources are the common task of mankind," he said. "We hope to further our exchanges with our counterparts in foreign countries and learn from each other."
Nevertheless, Washington is unlikely to agree to much cooperation until Beijing agrees to sign the international treaty that restricts trade in long-range missiles, according to Vick.
"That," he said, "would make a considerable difference."
© Copyright 2006, The Associated Press