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Hard Frontier

11-07-2011 13:15 BJT Special Report:Building Heavenly Palace |

The Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, located in Northwest China, seemed cold and quiet in the chilled breeze even when Shenzhou-8 successfully launched on Tuesday and docked with the Tiangong-1 space lab module two days later. It's the way the entire space center normally operates, cautious and with a very low profile.

A soldier stands in front of the launch tower at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center. Photo: CFP

The launch center's residential area has a population of 30,000 mainly consisting of technicians and soldiers along with their family members. It occupied more than half of this area when established in 1958, and it was the first of its kind in China, situated in an area that borders Gansu Province and the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.

Residents are seldom seen on the streets, even in front of the food markets or at the schools in the center, normally only sunlight can be found which pours down on the willows swaying their yellow leaves during the winter frost. But all that changed when Shenzhou-8 was launched, during which the families of the soldiers and technicians appeared at the site with photo and video cameras, which is 1.5 kilometers away from the launch tower.

Around 300 people showed up at the appointed viewing site of the General Armament Department of the People's Liberation Army including young children who couldn't stop running around the warning line until their parents calmed them down just seconds before the official launch.

The adults concentrated on recording video of the event and were reluctant to talk to strangers, meanwhile, 20 guards standing in front of the warning line took off their masks and happily took photos of each other until 15 seconds before the countdown.

Though the people watching were restrained, they counted down with the announcer outside the building of the control room, while many spectators hailed the launch. A total of 300 people watched the launch from more than three different viewing locations.

People from the government, army, and enterprises related to space development and the media all traveled to Jiuquan to experience what a rocket launch feels like and what it's like to be within the secretive space center.

Secrets unveiled

Other than the military restricted areas, part of the center is open to the public for domestic tours which makes the area an important part of Jiuquan's tourism industry.

In order to visit the space center, tour groups must submit travel applications at least a week in advance, but once they're approved they can visit the actual field where the Shenzhou rockets are launched. They can also go to the history museum, and the cemetery where the center's founders were buried.

"The number of tourists dropped at the beginning of November because of the cold weather," said a 40-year-old local tour guide who only gave her surname Shang, to the told the Global Times. "But during peak season from August to October, tourists come to Jiuquan to visit the launch center."

"They all want to see the models of rockets and satellites and the old undisclosed documents from when the center was established," Shang said.

Watching soldiers guarding the entrance of every tourist site while giving their stamps of approval for those to enter; it is not difficult to realize the sites are still exclusive to tourists.

Surviving hardship

Though the environment is not an ideal place to live, the 30,000 residents of Jiuquan are at least lucky enough to reside here with their families.

Lu Bin, a 32-year-old soldier, has been working at the satellite center's farm since 1999. Unlike other soldiers who directly assist with work on the satellite or rocket launches, Lu and two other soldiers take care of more than 10,000 poultry such as imported ostriches and keet to feed the whole center with enough eggs and meat, and there are also monkeys and deers which provide entertainment to the isolated soldiers.

Lu and his family live separately in Jiuquan and Weifang, Shandong Province. Though he receives a two-month leave every year, he hardly gets to see his family with so many mouths to feed at the center.

When asked whether he felt bad for not being able to work at the frontlines of the center, Lu smiled and responded, "I think my job is just fine, besides it's something I can do after I retire."

An employee who works at the center on scientific research, and who wished to remain anonymous, told the Global Times that though the environment is harsh, the work is necessary and sacrifices for the space program must be made because if China stops exploring outer space then it will fall behind with too big of a gap that generations of future Chinese won't be able to fill.

Jiuquan was once a vital position along the Silk Road during the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD), but today it is developing its potential in new energy with wind and solar power. With a population of over 910,000, it is common for young people to leave the city where 1,500 yuan is the average monthly salary.

"I used to work for a news organization in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, and was reluctant to return home, believing that my future was much brighter somewhere else," Shasha, a 30-year-old Jiuquan resident, told the Global Times.

"Although the launching of satellites and tourism surrounding our cultural heritage has helped the local economy, we still need more help and attention from other parts of the country," she said.

Editor:Zhang Jianfeng |Source: Global Times

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