Chasing rockets in China


A file picture of a child reacting to a display showing the launch of Chinese space rockets in Beijing. China’s burgeoning space programme plans to place astronauts on the moon before 2030. — AP

In the hush of the night, a blaze of brilliance pierced the darkness, its fiery ascent thundering through the clouds.

On the sandy beaches, rooftops and balconies of high-rise residential buildings in Longlou, a quaint township in southern China, all eyes turned skyward, as the resounding rumble of the carrier rocket and the thunderous roar of the crowd swept over this town located in Wenchang City in the island province of Hainan.

Recently, the launch of the Long March-7 Y8 rocket, carrying the Tianzhou-7 cargo spacecraft from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site, not only illuminated the night sky but also breathed life into Longlou.

Every time a launch is scheduled, throngs of tourists embark on a journey to get to the site.

They fly to the provincial capital Haikou before transferring to a high-speed train bound for Wenchang and conclude the trip with a short drive of over 20km to reach Longlou. Then, the streets here become abuzz with activity, with vehicles flooding in and hotels fully booked.

Like a dream

For 29-year-old Zhang Zuoxing, an avid astrophotographer from Guangdong Province in south China, witnessing a rocket launch is not just a visual feast; it’s a multisensory experience that evokes a sense of wonder and awe.

“The rocket ascended quietly. It was a few seconds later that I heard the roaring noise. Despite the continuous cheers and screams around me, those few seconds made me feel as if I were in a vacuum. It was almost like a dream,” Zhang said, recalling his first-ever experience of witnessing a rocket launch in 2020.

Driven by a desire to share this profound experience with more people, Zhang and his friends founded the youth travel organisation “Walking At 20” in 2020. Since its inception, he has visited Wenchang 13 times to watch rocket launches.

This time, Zhang was accompanied by 16 fellow travellers and they watched the Long March-7 Y8 rocket from a quiet beach.

“They were very excited, and many of them had already booked the next trip with me,” he said.

He has led over 300 individuals spanning various age groups to witness rocket launches.

Seasonal rocket enthusiasts are driven by different motivations, Zhang said, noting that some are fuelled by curiosity while others by a thirst for knowledge.

“Rocket chasing” has become an addictive pursuit for Tang Muzhi, a sophomore student studying material science at Northwest Minzu University.

The recent launch of the Tianzhou-7 cargo spacecraft marked his third visit to Wenchang, with his initial experience dating back to July 2022, when he witnessed the launch of Wentian, the first lab module of China’s space station.

“Seeing the massive object ascend into the sky transformed textbook descriptions into a tangible reality. At that moment, I truly understood the nation’s rapid development and felt as if I was becoming a part of the current of the times,” Tang said.

“I will never forget that big day.”

Wang Jianjun, a 70-year-old tourist, makes sure to bring his grandson to the launch site for every rocket launch. “I aim to plant the seed of space dreams in my grandson’s heart.

“Experiencing the space launch first-hand will undoubtedly leave a more profound impression than any words I could convey to him,” he said.

A Long March-2C rocket carrying the Einstein Probe satellite lifting off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Xichang, in China’s Sichuan province on Jan 9. — AFPA Long March-2C rocket carrying the Einstein Probe satellite lifting off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Xichang, in China’s Sichuan province on Jan 9. — AFP

Behind the frenzy

China has notched up an impressive series of achievements in the space industry, with important launches including the BeiDou Navigation Satellite System satellites, Chang’e lunar probes, and the Tianwen-1 Mars probe.

Before it became a part of the tourist circuit, Longlou Township was relatively obscure to the outside world, with the locals mainly engaged in agriculture and fisheries.

The turning point came in 2016 with the opening of the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site, China’s first open coastal space launch facility. Since then, Longlou has been transformed into a vibrant hub for space enthusiasts.

Rocket launches have also brought fortune to locals.

In the past two years alone, the town, home to 27,000 permanent residents, has received over 1.5 million visitors.

Leveraging the space launch centre and coastal tourism resources, businesses have mushroomed across Longlou.

The count of hotels and bed-and-breakfast (B&B) establishments surged from five to over 50, while shops multiplied from 230 to more than 900, said Ye Sheng, deputy Party secretary of Longlou.

Last year, Zhu Ying, who runs a local B&B, invested an additional CNY4mil (RM2.64mil) to renovate 14 rooms. “Many important launch missions will be carried out in Longlou in the future, which will drive the demand for accommodation and travel services,” Zhu said.

Xue Ce, manager of a hotel in Longlou, sustains his livelihood from the accommodation business by providing tourists with rooftop viewing spots.

His account on Xiaohongshu, China’s lifestyle-focused social media platform, has garnered thousands of followers, attesting to the growing interest in the town’s burgeoning space-related tourism.

“Whenever the launch dates are announced, my rooms quickly get fully booked,” Xue said, adding that several guests have now become his good friends.

As space tourism gains momentum, big companies are tapping into the market.

According to Yang Tianliang, chairman of Hainan International Commercial Aerospace Launch, there’s tremendous potential in offering space tourism services to ordinary people.

To seize this opportunity, the company launched Hainan’s first commercial aerospace tourism route last year, allowing visitors to explore the province’s commercial space launch site, currently under construction.

Having witnessed more than 10 rocket launches himself, Zhang Zuoxing said though the initial excitement has waned, he has found a new passion in capturing the expressions of people with his camera as they watch the launch. His lens weaves stories of a blend of joy, surprise and awe of the space enthusiasts.

The spectacle of a rocket launch carries with it the ultimate goal of exploring deep space and unravelling the mysteries of the universe. This endeavour also reflects the dream of the Chinese people.

“The Chinese people’s aspiration and exploration of the universe resemble a ‘Long March’,” he said. “I am committed to helping more travellers relish the beauty of rocket launches.” – Xinhua

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