Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Super secret base fuels China's space ambitions

By Nic Robertson, CNN
June 11, 2013 -- Updated 1259 GMT (2059 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • CNN's Nic Robertson is the only Western correspondent invited to China's scheduled rocket launch
  • In China's super-secret space city he finds a relaxed vacation vibe
  • Locals ride cycles and charm you with friendliness
  • But behind the relaxed facade is a fierce ambition taking China into space

Jiuquan, China (CNN) -- The first thing I noticed were the bicycles. Those who weren't riding them were walking.

I was beginning to wonder if we'd taken a wrong turn. We were looking for China's super-secret space center.

Our four-hour drive from Jiuquan in China's west had taken us past picture postcard fields and fish ponds framed by looming snow-capped peaks, through an oasis of green and finally across the arid Gobi desert.

READ MORE: Spaceship blasts off from Gobi Desert

China's Shenzhou 10 rocket blasts off from the Gobi Desert in the city of Jiuquan, in China's Gansu province, on Tuesday, June 11. The craft is scheduled to dock with the Tiangong-1 space module, where the three crew members will transfer supplies to the space lab, which has been in orbit since September 2011. China's Shenzhou 10 rocket blasts off from the Gobi Desert in the city of Jiuquan, in China's Gansu province, on Tuesday, June 11. The craft is scheduled to dock with the Tiangong-1 space module, where the three crew members will transfer supplies to the space lab, which has been in orbit since September 2011.
China launches three into space
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
>
>>
Photos: China launches three into space Photos: China launches three into space

We had pushed through numerous military checkpoints and past cameras that flashed and took our picture as we sped past the seemingly endless shimmering sand hills. There should be no doubt we'd arrived at the right place, it just didn't feel like it.

Atmosphere 'electric'

If this really was the epicenter of China's space race, then why did it feel so relaxed?

A few hours later I'd be in a room crammed with TV cameras and reporters where the atmosphere was electric in a weird sci-fi way. But at that moment on those narrow scrubbed and manicured streets it felt almost like a vacation town.

READ: Fifth manned space mission set for lift-off

China launches manned spacecraft
China makes space history
U.S.- China summit under way
Obama, China's Xi agree to work together

Tiny restaurants pulsed bright inviting neon lights at us as we drove by. Even the small stores had a come hither and loiter awhile holiday village quality to them.

Our hotel when we arrived was so new gardeners were still planting the flower beds, and builders' white sheets covered the new red carpet.

Sadly, in this town that claims to offer the ultimate in uplift, space rockets, the elevator was not working. The porters however were only too happy to help.

Easy charm

Indeed, that seems to sum up Jiuquan space center as the town is known; its easy charm and friendliness. It's not until you rub shoulders with the town's power brokers that you see sense the purpose of this place.

READ: Will China overtake America in space?

In one of the low rise buildings, barely visible from the road behind rows of trees I met one such person. Rather I saw her, than actually met her. In a conference room crowded with journalists she strode in on a mission.

No sense of holiday about her, she oozes work. As deputy director of the space mission that means she has the hopes of the nation riding on her shoulders. Little wonder everyone in the room paid attention to her words.

Every question that came about the imminent launch of China's next manned mission to space she answered in precise, accurate and minute detail. Well, almost every question. For no matter how much I waved my hand and waited my turn, it never came.

Space race

I suppose, after all, this is a Chinese event and why would they want to answer a question from the only Western reporter they'd invited to the launch? But space race, yes, I caught a whiff of it right there.

READ: Timeline of China's race into space

Before the Long March 2F rocket topped by the Shenzhou 10 space capsule does take off on Tuesday, I am told I will get to the launch pad. No doubt I'll catch the urgency right there.

China has taken great strides since its first manned space mission 10 years ago but it still lags the U.S. and Europe, who share the permanently manned international space station.

Everyone will be wishing the Chinese mission luck as they thrust into the skies on the quest to help future generations.

The blue spacesuited heroes I saw will spend 15 days orbiting the earth after docking with their own unmanned space station. While by comparison, Russia's Soyuz craft docks with the International Space Station just six hours after liftoff, the Chinese will take two days from takeoff to docking.

But six hours or two days; it doesn't really matter. China is in space and the people of this town fully understand what that achievement means.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 0929 GMT (1729 HKT)
Christians in eastern China keep watch in Wenzhou, where authorities have demolished churches and removed crosses.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 0538 GMT (1338 HKT)
Home-grown hip-hop appeals to a younger generation but its popularity has not translated into record deals and profits for budding rap artists.
September 9, 2014 -- Updated 0545 GMT (1345 HKT)
Reforms to the grueling gaokao - the competitive college entrance examination - don't make the grade, says educator Jiang Xueqin.
September 5, 2014 -- Updated 1218 GMT (2018 HKT)
Beijing grapples with reports from Iraq that a Chinese national fighting for ISIS has been captured.
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 0200 GMT (1000 HKT)
CNN's David McKenzie has tasted everything from worms to grasshoppers while on the road; China's cockroaches are his latest culinary adventure.
September 5, 2014 -- Updated 0057 GMT (0857 HKT)
Beijing rules only candidates approved by a nominating committee can run for Hong Kong's chief executive.
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
China warns the United States to end its military surveillance flights near Chinese territory.
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0312 GMT (1112 HKT)
China has produced elite national athletes but some argue the emphasis on winning discourages children. CNN's Kristie Lu Stout reports
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 0513 GMT (1313 HKT)
Chinese are turning to overseas personal shoppers to get their hands on luxury goods at lower prices.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 0908 GMT (1708 HKT)
Experts say rapidly rising numbers of Christians are making it harder for authorities to control the religion's spread.
August 11, 2014 -- Updated 0452 GMT (1252 HKT)
"I'm proud of their moral standing," says Harvey Humphrey. His parents are accused of corporate crimes in China.
August 6, 2014 -- Updated 1942 GMT (0342 HKT)
A TV confession detailing a life of illegal gambling and paid-for sex has capped the dramatic fall of one of China's most high-profile social media celebrities.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 0410 GMT (1210 HKT)
President Xi Jinping's campaign to punish corrupt Chinese officials has snared its biggest target -- where can the campaign go from here?
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 0712 GMT (1512 HKT)
All you need to know about the tainted meat produce that affects fast food restaurants across China, Hong Kong, and Japan.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 0230 GMT (1030 HKT)
Some savvy individuals in China are claiming naming rights to valuable foreign brands. Here's how companies can combat them.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 0911 GMT (1711 HKT)
Is the Chinese president a true reformist or merely a "dictator" in disguise? CNN's Beijing bureau chief Jaime FlorCruz dissects the leader's policies
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 0344 GMT (1144 HKT)
With a population of 1.3 billion, you'd think that there would be 11 people in China who are good enough to put up a fight on the football pitch.
ADVERTISEMENT