BEIJING: Three Chinese astronauts made a jubilant return to Earth on Sunday after successfully completing the country s first-ever spacewalk mission, an event the premier hailed as a milestone in China s space history.
State broadcaster CCTV showed the astronauts emerge from their capsule and wave at cameras as they celebrated the end of their 68-hour mission.
Their Shenzhou 7 module landed under clear skies in the grasslands of China s northern Inner Mongolia region at 5:37 pm. Premier Wen Jiabao applauded at mission control in Beijing as it touched ground after floating gently down under a giant red-and-white-striped parachute.
It was a glorious mission, full of challenges with a successful end, mission commander Zhai Zhigang said. We feel proud of the motherland.
After landing, the astronauts sipped bottled water as they were given medical examinations inside the module. They were declared healthy.
Zhai, Liu Boming and Jing Haipeng stayed inside for about 46 minutes to adapt to Earth s gravity before slowly crawling out of the narrow entrance.
The trio waved and sat on blue fold-out chairs outside the capsule. They were each presented with a bouquet of flowers.
Wen shook hands with staff at mission control and called the mission a major success for Chinese space technology.
This mission s success is a milestone; a stride forward, Wen said. I would like to extend my congratulations to the heroic astronauts who successfully completed this mission. … The people of the motherland will remember your historic contributions forever.
Saturday s space walk, which was broadcast live and watched by crowds gathered around outdoor television screens, further stoked national pride one month after the close of the Beijing Olympics.
A small step by Zhai Zhigang in space is a big step in the history of the Chinese nation, said a commentary by the official Xinhua News Agency carried Sunday by the Beijing Daily newspaper.
On most newspaper front pages were pictures of Zhai clutching a Chinese flag as he hovered in space outside the Shenzhou 7 vessel, alongside photos of Chinese President Hu Jintao on a telephone as he spoke to the astronauts.
The spacewalk was mainly aimed at testing China s mastery of the technology involved. Zhai s sole task was to retrieve a rack attached to the outside of the orbital module containing an experiment involving solid lubricants.
Tethered to handles attached to the Shenzhou 7 s orbital module, Zhai remained outside for about 13 minutes.
Greetings to all the people of the nation and all the people of the world, Zhai, facing an external camera, said as he floated halfway out of the open hatch.
Fellow astronaut Liu also emerged briefly from the capsule to hand Zhai a Chinese flag while Jing monitored the ship from inside the re-entry module.
While successful, the spacewalk wasn t without its anxious moments.
Zhai, a 41-year-old fighter pilot, appeared to struggle with the hatch and a fire alarm was triggered in the orbiter as he began the spacewalk.
Wang Zhaoyao, deputy director of manned space flight, conceded that the combined effects of weightlessness and depressurization on the hatch opening operation hadn t been fully anticipated. He blamed a faulty sensor for the fire alarm.
The spacewalk required the astronauts to first depressurize and then repressurize the orbital module and proved the effectiveness of Zhai s Feitian space suit, produced by China at a cost of $4.4 million. Liu wore a nearly identical Russian-made Orlan suit, according to the reports.
The spacewalk paves the way for assembling a space station from two Shenzhou orbital modules, the next major goal of China s manned spaceflight program.
China is also pursuing lunar exploration and may attempt to land a man on the moon in the next decade – possibly ahead of NASA s 2020 target date for returning to the moon.
China launched its first manned mission, Shenzhou 5, in 2003, becoming only the third country after Russia and the United States to launch a man into space. That was followed by a two-man mission in 2005.