China’s ‘Cape Canaveral’ lifts lid on secretive space program

China's space race

China’s space race 01:57

Story highlights

  • 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

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.

(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.
CNN's rare access inside China's space program

inside China space program mckenzie erin_00004929

CNN’s rare access inside China’s space program 02:37

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.
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.

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