President Jiang Zemin, leader of a government that wishes to send a man into orbit, made a pilgrimage to Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, a symbol of America's successes in the field.
Jiang, who has repeatedly emphasized the importance of high technology during his 13 years in power, made the center the first stop on his visit Wednesday to the city after checking into his hotel.
"Both the Chinese and the US side thought the center would be worth a visit," said Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Kong Quan, who is accompanying Jiang during his four-day US tour.
The Johnson Space Center, which is run by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, is the control center for US space missions.
Members of Jiang's entourage declined to give details about Jiang's visit to the center.
One Chinese official said the 76-year-old president had merely engaged in "small talk" with staff.
However, the visit is laden with significance because of China's own fledgling but fiercely ambitious space program.
It aims to launch a manned space mission within the next few years, making the country the third to put a human into orbit after the former Soviet Union and the United States.
In July a Pentagon report said this could happen even within the next 18 months, and that China plans to eventually build a reusable space vehicle similar to the US space shuttle.
(China Daily October 24, 2002)