Inside China’s secret space city project

(CNN) – We are heading to the far north west of Beijing, to try and get access to a story we have been working on for more than a year because we have been dealing, ultimately, with the people’s liberation army.

We’re heading inside space city, where foreign journalists are almost never let in.  It’s the heart of China’s most expensive and ambitious project, the manned space program.

We’re meeting three of China’s best known astronauts, it’s their first ever interview with a foreign reporter.

David McKenzie: “Is it very difficult to dock the two space craft together?”

Nie Haisheng, astronaut: “It is very difficult to dock the two space craft together, that is why we had to do the simulation many many times.”

David McKenzie: “How many hours did you have to train to do that?”

Nie Haisheng, astronaut: “We trained for docking for two years.”

CNN has obtained this exclusive footage of their rigorous training.  Thousands of hours of simulations hone their technique, so it’s perfect in space.  Physical, psychological and team testing, always on the go.

David McKenzie: “It seems like you have to be a certain height, you have to have a degree, you have to pass all of these physical and psychological team tests, do you have to be superhuman to be an astronaut.”

Nie Haisheng: “Though the training process of astronauts is very difficult, we are just ordinary people. But certain aspects of us make us more suitable to fly space missions.”

David McKenzie: “So this a model and in fact a simulator of what the Chinese astronauts do in space, this over here is the space lab that went into orbit some years ago, the Tiangong-1, and over here is the space ship that attaches to it, the Shenzhou. Now the Shenzhou was originally modeled on the Russian or then Soviet Union Soyuz space craft.”

China borrowed heavily from the Russians when it launched the manned space program in the early nineties.  Since then, it has steadily checked off the milestones: Its first man in space, first spacewalk, and first multi-day mission.  Of course, it comes decades after the space race of the cold war.

David McKenzie: “Do you think china can catch up in the coming decades?”

Nie Haisheng: “The United States and Russia started their programs early. They are the pioneers.”

David McKenzie: “Presumably you want it to be the best.”

Nie Haisheng: “Of course, I hope our space program will be better and better. We are very willing to make this happen along with other countries of the world.”

The Chinese space program cooperates with the European Union and others, but the entire program is locked out of NASA by the U.S. Congress because of national security and is banned from the international space station, where 15 nations operate.

“Every time it gets mentioned at all anywhere near congress it gets shut down immediately. There is tremendous skepticism there about china. It is viewed as a foe, it is viewed as a government that seeks to take our intellectual property, our national secrets and treasure. I think it’s a mistake,” said Miles O’Brien, aviation analyst.

David McKenzie: “Is it disappointing that you cannot directly cooperate with NASA and do joint exercises with the international space station?”

Nie Haisheng: “As an astronaut, I have a very strong desire to fly space missions with astronauts from other countries.”

For now, the manned space program goes it alone. China plans to put its own space station into orbit within a decade.

They say astronauts from other countries are always welcome as long as they learn Chinese.

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