China took foreign reporters on a tour Wednesday of the command center of its secretive space program, a gesture of openness to encourage Washington and other governments to allow Beijing a role in joint manned space projects.
Reporters who visited the site dubbed Aerospace City on Beijing's northwestern outskirts were shown the control room, where technicians have run two manned space launches, and an adjacent astronaut school.
The highlight was a 15-minute appearance by Col. Yang Liwei — his first encounter with Western reporters since he orbited the Earth in 2003 on China's maiden manned space flight.
"We hope to further our exchanges with our counterparts in foreign countries and learn from each other," Yang said. "Let's join hands and work together to create a bright future for the peaceful use of space."
The carefully supervised 90-minute tour was part of a charm offensive by China, which hopes to win access to the International Space Station and other joint projects by allaying fears about the goals of its military-linked program.
"It's part of the process of being more transparent, which is a requirement for being a part of international space efforts," said Charles Vick, a space analyst for GlobalSecurity.org, a Washington-based think tank.
Nevertheless, Vick said Washington is unlikely to agree to a Chinese role in manned space projects until Beijing signs the international treaty that controls trade in long-range missiles. "That continues to be a barrier," he said.
Yang's 21-hour flight made China only the third nation to send a human into orbit on its own, after the former Soviet Union and the United States. Two more astronauts, Nie Haisheng and Fei Junlong, followed last October on a five-day mission.
The next manned launch is planned for next year. Officials say they are working toward sending a space station aloft and want to land a robot probe on the Moon.
The communist government says its space program is peaceful and aimed at promoting technological development. But it also has military purposes, including spy satellites, and American officials are wary of sharing technology that might be used to improve China's arsenal of nuclear-armed ballistic missiles.
NASA administrator Michael Griffin said in April that he had accepted an invitation to visit China for talks on cooperation. A Chinese space official was quoted by state media as saying he hoped the visit would lead to more Chinese scientists being granted U.S. visas to attend aerospace conferences.
U.S. officials got their first look at the space command center in early 2004, when visiting Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was given a tour. Reporters traveling with Myers were barred from taking photos.
Later that year, foreign reporters were allowed their first, and so far only, visit to the remote Gobi Desert base where China launches its manned rockets.
The Beijing command center reflects the austerity of a program that says it spent just $2.2 billion — about the cost of one U.S. space shuttle — on the 11-year effort leading up to Yang's 2003 flight.
In a room smaller than some Beijing movie theaters, four giant video screens overlook rows of desks equipped with computer terminals, all of them vacant on Wednesday.
One screen showed scenes of Nie and Fei in their orbiting Shenzhou VI capsule in October. "Energetically enlarge the manned aerospace spirit," urged a red banner on one wall.
In the nearby astronaut training center, Yang met reporters in a three-story room with a full-scale model of a Shenzhou space capsule used to train astronauts.
Asked whether he would return to space, Yang said that as a career astronaut, "I am always ready to do that."