The road to China's space center at Xichang passes fields of rice and corn as it courses through a mountain valley surrounded by hills rising hundreds of feet above the paddies. Yi farmers (the Yi are one of China's ethnic minority groups) hoe their plots by hand and plough the river's bottom soil with water buffaloes in this remote region of Sichuan Province normally off-limits to foreigners.
At the end of the valley, only a few hundred yards from fields of brown chaff gathered in bundles for winter fuel, lies one of the proudest accomplishments of Chinese technology -- the Xichang Satellite Launching Center. As one of the country's most visible attempts to catch up with the West, the center may become more than the tightly guarded military facility it now is.
If China can leap some technical and political hurdles and convince foreign satellite owners to sign launch contracts, it could become an important source of foreign-currency earnings for the country's cash-starved defense establishment.
Xichang's command and control center, the building where the Long March 3 rockets are assembled and tested, and the launch platform itself are tucked away in separate folds of the Sichuan mountains. The site is connected by road and railway to the provincial capital of Chengdu, some 200 miles to the northwest. It is easier to put satellites into geosynchronous orbit from Xichang, closer to the equator, than from the site at Jiuquan. Jiuquan, in Gansu Province more than 800 miles to the north, is where the two-stage Long March 2 rockets are based.
The Xichang Space Center is guarded by soldiers of the People's Liberation Army. If it resembles a missile base, that's because China's rocket technology and its launch centers are under military supervision and are part of the national defense program.
Despite the security, the centers at Xichang and Jiuquan have recently gotten some foreign attention. China hopes to use them to capture a portion of the world market in space services and has already accepted several reservations for launches.
The first launch may be for the Swedish Space Corporation in 1988, industry analysts say, though Western Union of the United States recently made a launch reservation for no later than March of that year. Teresat, Inc., of Houston, TX, has made two reservations as well, though the company currently owns no satellites.
Chinese officials have come forward with their offer of launch services at a time when NASA in the US and Arianespace, a European company with French and West German backing, have suffered serious setbacks. These have forced cancellations of many satellite launch plans and delayed others for several years.
The decision to place the Long March 2 and Long March 3 rockets at the disposal of foreign clients was announced a year ago this month. Because of the secrecy surrounding China's space program and its tight control by the military, the commercialization effort has involved much pulling and tugging within defense agencies. The decision to permit the US press to have a look at Xichang last week was also a struggle for the authorities, said a Chinese military escort who accompanied the group.
The reporters were traveling with US Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, who was given a one-hour tour of the facility. Some observers said the visit was aimed at publicizing China's space efforts and at building international confidence in its launch capabilities.
At the control center, Mr. Weinberger and his party watched a 15-minute video presentation on the Long March 3 which ended with the message: ``Friends from all countries are welcome to come here for a visit, to talk, and to have technical exchanges.'' The US visitors later inspected the launch pad and its 11-story gantry.
Before leaving, Weinberger ended his visit on a note of approval: ``This launch center is clearly capable of making a launch,'' he told reporters. He added that there were ``very extensive and very impressive plans to improve the infrastructure and the other facilities'' within the next year, which would improve the center's ability to proceed with a commercial launch program.
With two communications satellites in orbit, another 17 satellites launched successfully since the early 1970s, and only two failures (only one ``total failure,'' Chinese officials say), foreign experts give China's rudimentary space efforts respectable marks. China's latest satellite was launched earlier this month from Jiuquan and recovered five days later.
The launch facilities are simple but effective, say the handful of knowledgeable foreigners who have visited Xichang and Jiuquan. As the US defense secretary indicated, however, both sites will require upgrading to Western standards before China can take on the responsibility of putting foreign satellites into space.
``China has only a short time in which to take advantage of the world market,'' said one Chinese military officer during the visit. He said he thought they needed to act quickly to upgrade the command and control systems and launch at least one foreign satellite to prove their capabilities.
US and European agencies will soon recover from their recent setbacks, he said. He might have added that by the early 1990s, Japan, too, is expected to offer commercial launch services.
A record of three successful launches from Xichang since 1984, using the three-stage Long March 3, is a major selling point for China. Space officials hope that record, plus low-budget services and subsidized insurance rates, will be attractive to third-world countries. They say 17 countries have shown interest. But many questions need to be answered before a final contract is signed with any US companies, including what to do about strict export controls for satellite technology. Some industry analysts say the problem could be solved if China agrees not to look into the satellite technology they have been entrusted to send into space.