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Long secret, China's space complex opens up

BEIJING -- It may look like Mission Control in Houston, but this space complex had been hidden from the world until yesterday, when US officials got their first look at the command center that recently sent China's first human flight into orbit and back.

"Congratulations. You've had a great success," General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Chinese space program officials during his 40-minute tour of the facility.

Like its storied US counterpart at Houston's Johnson Space Center, Beijing Aerospace Control Center appears to be the technical, and perhaps inspirational, linchpin of its country's space program.

On Oct. 15, Colonel Yang Liwei orbited Earth several times in a modified Russian capsule before landing safely inside China's borders. The mission catapulted China onto the short list of countries, Russia and the United States, with manned space-flight programs.

Beijing envisions plans for a space station and a lunar base. China has also announced a second human mission by 2005.

China regards its space program as a matter of prestige -- though there are military purposes, particularly with intelligence-gathering satellites.

When China's space control center is running, an operator at each station monitors one of the subsystems of the Chinese spacecraft. The central main screen has a world map with an overlay of the spacecraft's orbit.

Until now, no foreign delegation had been allowed inside the Beijing Aerospace Control Center. A small group of reporters accompanied Myers but were not allowed to take photographs.

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