A police car with flashing lights led busloads of international journalists across northwestern China's vast Gobi Desert Wednesday to the Jiuquan space center, past armored patrol vehicles and a sign, in English: "Foreigners are not allowed to enter without permission."
It was the first time China let foreigners enter, though officials forbade photographs of the command-and-control center with its rows of computer screens or the mammoth assembly hall where workers built the spacecraft that lifted China's first astronaut into orbit last October.
For the secrecy-conscious national government, Jiuquan houses treasures to be guarded closely. But to local officials, Jiuquan is a blue-ribbon brand name just waiting to be marketed far and wide.
"No matter what products are named after Jiuquan, they will sell," said Hao Yuan, assistant to the governor of Gansu province, where part of the space center is located.
"We welcome foreign cooperation in the fields of aerospace and aviation," Hao said. "We would also like to provide launch services to foreign companies."
Like most local officials, Hao has never visited the Jiuquan space center. But it was officials in Gansu who lobbied Beijing to open it up. "Otherwise, few reporters would come here," Hao said.
China stands to reap big benefits from good publicity about its space program — both in economic potential and national prestige.
Located on a sprawling 1,930-square mile site, the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center is an island of technological achievement in one of the country's poorest regions. Annual farm incomes in nearby villages average just $470, as peasants struggle to coax cotton and corn to grow in the arid climate.
The space center entered history on Oct. 15, 2003, when China's first astronaut, Col. Yang Liwei, blasted off from here. He orbited the Earth 14 times in a modified Russian Soyuz capsule before landing safely to a hero's welcome.
Only China, Russia and the United States have sent men into space.
China wants to land an unmanned craft on the moon by 2010 and ultimately build its own space station. It has scheduled its second manned mission for autumn 2005, aiming to put two astronauts into orbit this time.
Research is carried out in a cluster of modest white buildings decorated with framed pictures of rockets. Banners exhort workers to "love the motherland and give selflessly."
Other slogans focus on scientific achievement, like one huge sign at the launch pad.
"Don't compromise on details," it says. "Don't miss by even a fraction of a second."
Jiuquan emerges as a heavily irrigated oasis of greenery amid the spartan Gobi Desert, with lush lawns and shady trees. The center's Dongfeng Aerospace City — home to 150,000 people, mostly scientists and their families — is a self-contained community complete with bank, post office, movie theater, swimming center and fast food.
"We don't have McDonald's but we do have KFC," said Yun Ning, a base spokesman. "I don't care for the food, but the children like it."
The glistening steel launch structure in the desert towers at 345 feet and was built and designed entirely by military firms. Rockets and spacecraft are assembled in a giant silo, then wheeled out on tracks for 1 mile to the launch pad. A vast concrete well catches burning fuel when rockets are launched.
Last year, China said its space program cost $2.18 billion, but officials say thriftiness is the watchword.
A second launch tower has just been built out of concrete instead of steel "because it's cheaper," said Sun Qingchuan, a base spokesman. "It will be used to launch scientific satellites."
Another motif is China's historic greatness. The apartment used by first astronaut Yang is named after a 1,000-year-old poem, "Ask the Sky," in which the speaker looks to the sky and wonders when the moon will be bright. "This poem ... shows China's ancient dream of exploring outer space," Yun said.
Thirty journalists from 24 news organizations and seven countries made the trip to Jiuquan, accompanied by Foreign Ministry officials every step of the way. The journey from Beijing was two hours by plane, then 10 hours by train across the Gobi Desert to the city of Jiuquan, plus a further four hours by bus to the space center.
Direct flights are available for senior officials.
The space center may be a world apart, but this corner of western China is anxious to be part of the economic boom that is transforming the nation's east-coast cities.
"We are interested in international cooperation, and this is reflected by our efforts to open up," said Hao, the assistant to the Gansu governor. "In all of Chinese history, Jiuquan is one of the most open places in China."