Inside Shenzhou Central
A rare visit to China's astronaut training center.
- By Leroy Chiao
- AirSpaceMag.com, March 01, 2007
Courtesy Leroy Chiao
(Page 2 of 2)
We then proceeded to a mockup of a space station that resembles a Soviet-era Salyut-class station. The Chinese had just finished a 62-day simulation inside the facility to evaluate closed-loop life support systems. It’s no secret that China intends to build and operate a modern space station. In fact, Russian sources have told me that the docking mechanism of the Shenzhou was purchased from Russia. If true, this means that the Shenzhou could dock with the International Space Station.
After the morning tour, it was off to a private dining room, where a large round table was spread with a banquet setting. Over a delicious lunch of delicacies, including thousand-year-old eggs, jellyfish, and pig ears, we had the chance to talk in depth. Yang and Fei are both keen to return to space, although Yang spoke with less certainty on the subject than Fei. I suspect that since Yang is a national hero, the Chinese equivalent of Yuri Gagarin or John Glenn, the leadership may prefer to keep him safely on the ground.
As we ate we compared notes on adapting to space, on food, on photography from orbit. Yang is mostly serious and reserved; he rarely smiles. I asked him about his impressions of space. He replied that he was most impressed with the fact that from space, Earth shows no political borders. Fei, who is more animated and gregarious, talked of the home planet’s beauty.
In the afternoon I gave a presentation about my space station mission, with lots of photographs from orbit. There was a gasp when I showed a detailed photo of the still-mostly-secret Chinese launch complex near Jiuquan, in the Gobi desert. Fei commented that on his mission, the camera equipment was crude, and that he and crewmate Nie Haisheng were unable to shoot such detailed photos.
For the capper to my talk, I showed them a picture of the Great Wall of China that I took from orbit with an 180-millimeter lens. I had shot the first verified astronaut photograph of the wall. (Some Apollo astronauts claimed to have seen it with the naked eye, but I challenge anyone to discern which line is the wall, which is a riverbed, and which is a road or ridgeline.)
The end of the day had come rather quickly, and it was time to say goodbye. Chen presented me with several gifts, including a beautifully detailed model of the Shenzhou spacecraft, and Fei Junlong gave me a framed mission patch from his flight. Both are wonderful gifts that I will treasure.