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Super secret base fuels China's space ambitions

By Nic Robertson, CNN
updated 8:59 AM EDT, Tue June 11, 2013
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
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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

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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.

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