by Dan Martin
Beijing (AFP) Sept 28, 2008
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 as cheers erupted at mission control.
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.
Zhai was watched on television by countless millions around the globe as China joined the United States and the former Soviet Union as the only nations to complete a spacewalk.
"I feel proud for the nation," Zhai told a television crew that arrived at the touchdown site.
During his spacewalk, 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.
In a televised chat Saturday with Zhai live from mission control, President Hu Jintao captured the nationalist fervour of China's feat by praising the 41-year-old commander.
"Your spacewalk 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."
On Sunday, Premier Wen Jiabao watched from Beijing's Aerospace Control Center, clapping as the capsule landed, ending its 68-hour mission.
Within minutes, technicians reached the module by car and began helping Zhai and fellow crew members Liu Boming and Jing Haipeng extract themselves.
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 Zhai's feat 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 three-man, three-day 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.
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.
As part of China's space programme, two more unmanned craft will be launched by 2010, as well as another manned spaceship with a crew of three to start work on the lab or space station, according to the China Daily.
After China sent its first man into space in 2003, it followed up with a two-man mission in 2005.
The Chinese Space Program - News, Policy and Technology
China News from SinoDaily.com
|The content herein, unless otherwise known to be public domain, are Copyright 1995-2014 - Space Media Network. AFP, UPI and IANS news wire stories are copyright Agence France-Presse, United Press International and Indo-Asia News Service. ESA Portal Reports are copyright European Space Agency. All NASA sourced material is public domain. Additional copyrights may apply in whole or part to other bona fide parties. Advertising does not imply endorsement,agreement or approval of any opinions, statements or information provided by Space Media Network on any Web page published or hosted by Space Media Network. Privacy Statement|