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
See CNN's complete coverage on China.
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 Xi Jinping 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.
July 4, 2014 -- Updated 0631 GMT (1431 HKT)
26-year-old Ji Cheng is the first rider from China to compete for competitive cycling's highest honor.
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1124 GMT (1924 HKT)
China's richest man, Wang Jianlin, may not yet be a household name outside of China, but that could be about to change.
July 4, 2014 -- Updated 0414 GMT (1214 HKT)
Hong Kong's narrow streets were once a dazzling gallery of neon, where banks and even bordellos plied their trade under sizzling tubular signs.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
When President Xi Jinping arrives in Seoul this week, the Chinese leader will have passed over North Korea in favor of its arch rival.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1159 GMT (1959 HKT)
Three more officials have been given the chop as part of China's anti-corruption drive, including former aides to the retired security chief.
July 1, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
As thousands of Hong Kongers prepare for an annual protest, voices in China's press warn pro-democracy activism is a bad idea.
June 30, 2014 -- Updated 0437 GMT (1237 HKT)
Hong Kongers are demanding the right to directly elect their next leader, setting up a face-off with Beijing.
July 1, 2014 -- Updated 0656 GMT (1456 HKT)
The push for democratic reform in Hong Kong is testing China's "one country, two systems" model.
June 30, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Along a winding Chinese mountain road dotted with inns and restaurants is Jinan Orphanage, a place of refuge and site for troubled parents to dump unwanted children.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 0836 GMT (1636 HKT)
CNN's Kristie Lu Stout invites Isaac Mao, Han Dongfang, and James Miles to discuss the rise of civil society in China and social media's crucial role.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 0334 GMT (1134 HKT)
Chen Guangbiao wants rich people to give more to charity and he'll do anything to get their attention, including buying lunch for poor New Yorkers.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 1144 GMT (1944 HKT)
Architects are planning to build the future world's tallest towers in China. They're going to come in pretty colors.
June 23, 2014 -- Updated 1147 GMT (1947 HKT)
Anna Coren visits Yulin's annual dog meat festival. Dogs are part of the daily diet here, with an estimated 10,000 dogs killed for the festival alone.
June 19, 2014 -- Updated 0638 GMT (1438 HKT)
People know little about sex, but are having plenty of it. We take a look at the ramifications of a lack of sex education in China.
June 13, 2014 -- Updated 0812 GMT (1612 HKT)
Hong Kongers have reacted angrily to a Chinese government white paper affirming Beijing's control over the territory.
The emphasis on national glory -- rather than purely personal achievement -- is key.
June 16, 2014 -- Updated 1614 GMT (0014 HKT)
A replica of the Effel Tower in Tianducheng, a luxury real estate development located in Hangzhou, east China's Zhejiang province.
What's the Eiffel Tower doing in China? Replica towns of the world's most famous monuments spring up all over China.
June 11, 2014 -- Updated 0013 GMT (0813 HKT)
Rapid development hasn't just boosted the economy -- it has opened up vast swathes of the country, says a man who has spent much of his life exploring it.
June 10, 2014 -- Updated 0654 GMT (1454 HKT)
The World Cup is apparently making a lot of people "ill" in China.
ADVERTISEMENT