The Long March 2F rocket carrying the Shenzhou 11 manned spacecraft at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center. Photographer: How Hwee Young/EPA

This Remote Military Base Is Where China Blasts Humans Into Space

By Bloomberg News

Jiayuguan was once the tangible edge of Chinese civilization –- where the Great Wall ends and the desolation of the Gobi Desert begins.

Now, four hours beyond those limits in a locked-down location along the Ruoshui River, China has built a gateway to the new final frontier.

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Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center is the nation’s preeminent “space city”—one of only three places where humans are blasted into the cosmos. Six manned flights have departed from here, including last month’s Shenzhou 11 mission to China’s own orbiting lab. Manned trips to the moon and Mars in the next decades also are being discussed.

The center also is the launching place for China’s most-important machines. The world’s first quantum-communications satellite, designed to provide hack-proof transmissions for the military, left here in August. The government and military, which ultimately controls the space program, don’t announce every launch, but the nonprofit Space Foundation estimates that at least 82 attempts have been made from the site since 1970.

Foreign media typically aren’t allowed near the launchpad. Authorities made a tightly controlled exception for the Shenzhou 11 blastoff, providing a rare opportunity to visit the oasis-like city, which rises from a moonscape reminiscent of the remote U.S. Air Force facility in Nevada known as Area 51.

The Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, one of only three places where humans are blasted into space. Source: DigitalGlobe via Getty Images

Schedules for visiting the administrative center were organized to the minute, with government minders warning that wanderers would be locked up by the military in places where even they couldn’t help.

Planning for a launch center began in 1956 as part of Mao Zedong’s ambition to match the rocketry prowess of the Soviet Union and the U.S. China’s first order of business was developing intercontinental ballistic missiles, and the base was built in 1958.

Operations are so sensitive that minders, professors and several government officials contacted by Bloomberg News said they wouldn’t answer any questions about the location.

From Jiayuguan, a thin, black artery of tarmac snakes northeast through boundless stretches of rock and grit before arriving at the center, which is deliberately misnamed and lies within Inner Mongolia.

At a final checkpoint guarded by troops in woodland camouflage, the razor wire-topped fences part and urban life sprouts. Wide, fastidiously clean avenues lined with leafy trees meander around lakes and grassy knolls dotted with disused rockets that serve as sculptures and backdrops for selfie-taking, government-approved tourists.

The space facility is nominally a military base attached to the People’s Liberation Army Air Force. Soldiers armed with wicker broomsticks march briskly to their stations to wage a futile war against the blowing sand.

A billboard of President Xi Jinping at the space city. Photographer: How Hwee Young/EPA

Images of President Xi Jinping are ubiquitous here. Billboards show him with his hands frozen in a silent clap to congratulate a successful liftoff.

“Exploring the vastness of the universe, developing the space industry and constructing space power is our unceasing pursuit of the space dream!” one caption reads.

In the hours leading up to the Shenzhou 11 launch, two astronauts—known in Chinese as “taikonauts”—prepared for their televised farewell, and the military’s role expanded. A troupe of men and women in bright, traditional Mongolian garb marched into position, their scripted presence meant to show unity among China’s minorities.

When the military brass band burst to life with patriotic songs in the predawn chill, a well-rehearsed crowd sang with rapture, then ceased with the music and dispersed with the sunrise.

Attendees at a ceremony for Shenzhou 11 astronauts Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong. Photographer: How Hwee Young/EPA

Away from the temporary pomp, the pedestrian touchstones of modern China are ever-present. Traffic cops and speed cameras watch for law-breaking drivers, and black sedans with visiting dignitaries line up at the gas station. Miniature replicas of Chinese-designed Long March rockets are sold next to cigarettes and chewing gum.

Questions faxed to the State Council Information Office about the community went unanswered. After a trip to cover the Shenzhou 8 mission in 2011, the state-run Nanfang Daily newspaper reported that about 35,000 people live in the residential zone of the center, which spans 2,800 square kilometers—an area more than twice the size of Los Angeles. Most are connected to the space program, either as employees or workers serving them.

At lunchtime, residents on electric scooters ferry goods and children via streets lined with cream-colored office blocks, apartment buildings, eateries and primary schools with murals on their walls. Look carefully and reminders of space abound, like the yogurt sold in a cafeteria which comes in tubs stamped with cartoon rockets lifting off above an ocean of milk.

Miniature replicas of the Shenzhou 11 at a souvenir store near the space city. Photographer: How Hwee Young/EPA

Some of the people overseeing the launch center are the sons and daughters of those who arrived under Mao. They typically study at Zhejiang University or the National University of Defense Technology.

Minders shooed foreign journalists away from the locals, but the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported in September that the biggest challenge for many residents was exposing their children to civilization outside the tiny, isolated town.

“This is the Gobi Desert—desolate and lonely—but long ago we turned this into home,” Yu Ling, a resident who grew up in Heilongjiang province, near Russia, told Xinhua. “Before, I came crying, but now I’m reluctant to leave.”