BEIJING (AFP) — Three Chinese astronauts returned safely to Earth on Sunday after making the country's first spacewalk, with a hero's welcome awaiting the men whose exploits captivated the nation.
The descent capsule of the Shenzhou VII mission was seen on state television drifting gently down under a giant red and white parachute to an empty plain in northern China's Inner Mongolia region.
Cheers erupted at mission control as the capsule touched down around 5:40 pm local time (0940 GMT).
Mission commander Zhai Zhigang had etched his name in the history books of this country of 1.3 billion people with a 15-minute walk in space Saturday that set another milestone in China's transformation into a global power.
"The mission was glorious and full of challenges but the result was perfect. I feel proud of my country," Zhai told a television crew that arrived at the touchdown site.
Zhai, 41, was watched on television by countless millions around the globe as his spacewalk vaulted China into ranks of the United States and the former Soviet Union as the only nations to complete a spacewalk.
During the manoeuvre, Zhai had floated outside the module holding the Chinese flag -- a moment of great drama and symbolism just days before the 50th anniversary of the US space agency NASA on Wednesday -- which is also China's National Day.
Premier Wen Jiabao watched from Beijing's Aerospace Control Center, applauding as the capsule landed, ending its 68-hour mission.
He later told mission control's dozens of technicians the mission was "a victory for China's space and technological" programmes.
"Your historical feat will be remembered by the country and the people," he said.
In a televised chat Saturday with Zhai live from mission control, President Hu Jintao had praised the space walk as a "breakthrough".
"Your space walk was a complete success. It's a major breakthrough in the development of our manned space programme," Hu said. "The motherland and the people thank you."
China sent its first man into space in 2003 and followed up with a two-man mission in 2005.
It now has its sights on a manned mission to the moon and a space station, said Wang Zhaoyao, spokesman for the manned space programme.
"We believe that as long as we can make further progress in science and technology, we can achieve the dream of a manned space flight to the moon in the near future," he told reporters after the Shenzhou VII's return.
China was mired in political chaos, poverty and isolation when the Americans and Soviets made the first spacewalks, back in the 1960s heyday of their space race, and the Shenzhou VII mission has stirred deep emotions among Chinese.
"I felt so proud when I saw Zhai Zhigang emerge from the cabin with the Chinese flag. Seeing the five-starred red flag in space, it shows China can do anything it sets its mind to," said He Changqiang, a Beijing businessman.
The spacewalk was the highlight of the voyage -- China's third manned foray into space -- and is considered an important step towards China's plans to building a space station.
"Following the Soviets and Americans, the black-haired and yellow-skinned Chinese have now left a footprint in space," declared a Beijing Youth Daily commentary, which also evoked the words of the first man to walk on the moon, US astronaut Neil Armstrong.
"This is one small step for a man, but one giant leap for the country," it said.
Tethered to the craft with two safety wires, Zhai retrieved a test sample of a solid lubricant placed outside the orbital module during the spacewalk.
The modest drill was intended to replicate the type of task that future spacewalkers will have to perform.
During the excursion, Zhai wore a Chinese-made space-suit that also has been touted as a breakthrough in China's technical capacity.
The full hero's welcome will have to wait for up to two weeks, however, as Zhai and his comrades are due to be quarantined for medical and other checks that are now routine for Chinese astronauts, Xinhua said Sunday.
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