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Editor’s Note: Joan Johnson-Freese has been a member of the faculty of the Naval War College since 2002. She specializes in space programs and space security.

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China to allow spectators to witness rocket launch from new spaceport

It's a sign China is lifting the veil on its secretive space program

CNN  — 

Just as visitors to Florida can visit Kennedy Space Center – and if they’re lucky see a rocket launch – go to the beach and even visit Disney World, Chinese visitors to Wenchang on Hainan Island now have much the same options.

Hainan, sometimes known as China’s Hawaii, is the location of China’s newest space launch site at Wencheng, in the northeast corner of the island.

Wenchang city planners and tourist officials are developing the area around the launch site with hotels to accommodate tourists to the beaches, the launch site, and even a space-related theme park.

The development of this launch site began in 2009, and will host its maiden flight of a new Chinese launcher, the Long March 7, as early as Saturday.

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Remote locations

Other Chinese launch sites were developed during the Cold War and specifically located in sometimes remote, inland locations: Jiuquan in the Gobi Desert, Xichang near Chengdu, and Taiyuan near Beijing.

That has meant rocket stages had to be transported by rail, thus imposing size limitations based on the curvature of rail lines and the width of train tunnels.

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Transport of rocket stages and payloads to Hainan can be done by sea.

Additionally, the Hainan site is closer to the equator, to better accommodate satellite launches to geostationary orbit, and allows rocket debris to fall into water instead of back to land.

Removing the size limitations on Chinese spacecraft is important because a new, modernized family of Chinese launchers are much wider than older ones, necessary to obtain the lift necessary for interplanetary flights and a large, 20-ton space station intended as the culmination of a three-part human spaceflight plan put in place in 1993.

The upcoming maiden flight of the medium-lift Long March 7 will carry a test version of a new, next-generation, human-rated spacecraft and several small satellites to orbit.

This is one of several planned precursor missions leading to the development of the 20-ton station, including Tiangong-2, a small, human-tended space laboratory to be launched in September 2016.

That launch will then be followed by China’s first astronaut mission since 2013, with the two-person crew scheduled to visit Tiangong-2 for 30 days, making it China’s longest duration mission yet.

However, human spaceflight missions will still be launched from Jiuquan.

Space station

The large space station should be in orbit sometime between 2020 and 2023.

When the large space station will be in orbit is largely dependent on successful testing and launch of the Long March 5 heavy lift vehicle, capable of lifting up to 25 metric tons to low Earth orbit and 14 tons to geostationary transfer orbit.

That vehicle more than doubles China’s current lift capacity, and development has already suffered numerous delays. The new launcher family uses a different, kerosene based, more environmentally friendly fuel mixture.

But it’s been the larger width of the launchers that has especially posed challenges for Chinese manufacturers. Eventually, the Long March 7 will be used for space station resupply missions.

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Public viewing platforms

Also notable about the upcoming launch is that for the first time, spectators will be allowed at public viewing areas that can accommodate 25,000 people.

The Chinese space program has been carefully controlled, and in some aspects, opaque.

But China has gained considerable regional and international prestige from its space efforts, prestige that can translate into geostrategic influence.

That only happens though when people – the public and the media – know what is going on.

Gradually, as they have felt more confident about success, Chinese officials have lifted the veil of secrecy on efforts associated with the Shenzhou human spaceflight program and the Chang’e robotic lunar exploration program.

In fact, Chinese officials have already invited astronauts from other countries to visit their space station once in orbit, with potential European visitors already said to be learning Chinese.

China has been excluded from the currently orbiting International Space Station (ISS) due to U.S. political objections and legislative restrictions. Thus, the Chinese invitation gives China the edge in perceived international inclusiveness and cooperative space spirit.

The downside of a seaside launch site is that weather is unpredictable, potentially causing launch delays.

Wenchang tourist officials have said if weather creates unfavorable conditions, such as abnormal seas or slippery roads, the viewing stations will be closed.

Meanwhile, they are working on building more hotels. All hotel rooms in the area – which is said able to accommodate 80,000 tourists – are already booked.