Shrouded in Secrecy, China’s Space Program Slowly Opens Up

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China’s space program has long been one of the country’s most secretive undertakings. When Yang Liwei became the first Chinese astronaut to reach orbit in a vessel powered by the country’s own rockets in 2003, television images were subjected to a time delay in case anything went wrong. News that his rough re-entry left his face covered in blood was concealed until 2010. In recent years requests from TIME and other foreign media outlets to visit space program facilities and interview key players have frequently been turned down. There have been some exceptions. CNN interviewed Yang in 2009, shortly before celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China’s founding. At that time a group of foreign journalists were also allowed to visit Space City, the Beijing center for the space program. But while such opportunities have been rare, there are signs China’s space program is beginning to open up.

On Friday, about 50 Beijing-based overseas journalists were allowed to visit the Space City’s Astronaut Center. The site in the capital’s northern suburbs is fronted with swirling blue and silver metal sculptures — the sort of space age art found even in backwater Chinese towns. The grounds look like a college campus, with overgrown lawns, tile-clad buildings and red banners extolling “scientific development.” Our group was ushered into a large hall filled with three training simulators and a wall of illuminated photos of China’s manned space program.

Yang, who is officially designated a “space hero” and is a leading spokesman for the program, outlined its recent accomplishments and future plans, most significantly to launch a space station by 2020. Stockier now than when he orbited the Earth 14 times in 2003, Yang wore a jacket and tie rather than his usual blue flight suit. Since his breakthrough flight, China has carried out two other manned space missions. In 2005 two Chinese astronauts spent five days in orbit. Three years later a Chinese astronaut carried out the country’s first space walk. Reaching the next goal, a space station, will take several steps.

In October, the Tiangong 1, or “heavenly palace,” an unmanned 8-ton target vehicle will be launched into space. Shortly after, the Shenzhou 8 spacecraft, also unmanned, will be sent up to rendezvous and dock with the Tiangong module. Two subsequent manned missions—Shenzhou 9 and 10—will also practice docking with Tiangong 1. The next step will be to launch additional manned missions—Shenzhou 9 and 10—to further develop docking techniques. By 2016 China plans to launch a space lab to prepare for a larger space station by the end of the decade. China also has plans to put a man on the moon by 2025. While the country has achieved remarkable progress in manned space flight, Yang acknowledged that the next stages won’t be easy. “Of course we have encountered many obstacles, for instance in the rendezvous and docking,” he said. “We have to make many breakthroughs in guidance and docking. The next stages to get to a space station will have many obstacles.” One will include the development of the Long March 5, a heavy lift launcher necessary to propel the components of the space station into orbit. “It has been repeatedly delayed, with an expected first launch now given as 2014,” says Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College and expert on the Chinese space program. “Watching that program will be an indicator of whether China will be able to make the 2020 date given for space station completion.”

The steps towards greater openness are a sign that the Chinese have “read the Apollo playbook,” says Johnson-Freese, and are aware of the benefits that come from a space program, including high-tech jobs, spin-off technologies with commercial and military applications, and global and domestic recognition. “If you want to reap prestige and geostrategic influence from a space program, you have to have that program publicized,” she says. “So, China is trying hard—against its cultural and political grain—to open the human spaceflight program to journalists.” Yang spoke of that prestige Friday, saying that he saw firsthand what pioneering space travel means to a country when he traveled to Russia earlier this month for celebrations of the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s space flight. “China’s space program is for the benefit of humanity, but it also promotes the development of science and culture. But it also plays an important role in improving our prestige and national cohesiveness. That’s why people pay attention. When I fly in space, I’m proud of both the nation and of humanity.”