Chinese authorities have given foreign reporters a rare glimpse into its ambitious space program today, taking them on a tour of the space command center in the northwestern outskirts of Beijing.
For the tour, which was organized by the Chinese Foreign Ministry, more than 40 reporters rode in two buses for an hour to reach the sprawling site called "Aerospace City."
They visited the control room where Chinese space officials and technicians observed and tracked two manned space launches. Four giant video screens dominated the front wall of the hall.
The giant screens overlooked rows of desks equipped with computer screens, enough to accommodate 100 personnel, though all of them were vacant during the media tour.
The two screens in the middle showed a map of the world showing the orbit of a space launch. One other screen showed video of the two Chinese astronauts inside their orbiting capsule last October.
A red banner with white Chinese characters written on it hung on another wall with the slogan -- "Energetically promote the spirit of the manned space launch."
The visit also included a stop at a training and research center where reporters saw a full-scale model of the Chinese space capsule known as Shenzhou, which means "Divine Ship." This model is used to train Chinese astronauts.
Inside a three-story-high hall where the Shenzhou model stood were two other round-shaped simulators used for astronaut training.
However, the hall was virtually empty during the media tour and the reporters were not shown any Chinese astronauts undergoing any training.
Reporters met with Col. Yang Liwei, the first Chinese astronaut to orbit Earth in October 2003. During his 15-minute appearance, Yang wore a Western suit and tie, appearing poised and acting more like a polished diplomat than a former jet pilot.
In the highlight of the tour, Yang made a pitch for international cooperation when he spoke to reporters.
"We hope to further exchanges with counterparts in foreign countries and learn from each other," he said. "Let us join hands and work together to create a bright future for the peaceful use of space."
After his 21-hour orbit on China's maiden manned space flight, Yang attained the status of a national icon.
Chinese authorities have dispatched him to Hong Kong and Macau on morale-boosting trips that were given blanket coverage by the Chinese media.
Two other Chinese astronauts, Nie Haisheng and Fei Junlong, made a five-day orbit into space last October. Huge portraits of the trio were prominently displayed inside the astronaut training center.
Yang also sought to allay any fear about the nature of China's space program, stressing its peaceful intention.
He recounted how U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan during their meeting in Geneva had praised China for being the first country to bring the U.N. flag on its manned space flight.
He also spoke of China's wish to make a bigger contribution to the peaceful exploration of space for the sake of humanity.