Inside Shenzhou Central

A rare visit to China’s astronaut training center.

China's first astronaut, Yang Liwei (left) got a visit in September 2006 from Leroy Chiao, the first astronaut of Chinese descent to walk in space. (Courtesy Leroy Chiao)

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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.

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