China Exults In Space Achievement

China's first astronaut Yang Liwei waves in a capsule as he returns safely to earth on the grasslands of Inner Mongolia in northern China, Thursday morning, Oct. 16, 2003. China's mission control declared the country's landmark debut flight "a success." AP Photo

Fresh from a history-making trip into orbit, China's newly minted space hero proclaimed his amazement Thursday at "the greatest day of my life" as his leaders immediately announced they would push forward in their exploration of the cosmos.

"I saw our planet. It's so beautiful," Lt. Col. Yang Liwei, China's first astronaut, marveled to his family after making it safely back to earth, gently touching down his Shenzhou 5 spacecraft on the grasslands of Inner Mongolia as a crisp dawn broke. The local time of landing: 6:23 a.m.

Shenzhou's safe return delights the Chinese people, reports CBS News' Jeff Gibson in Beijing.

Prof. Pong Jongsiung said it was really a patriotic milestone. "The Chinese dream, going into space, now really is finally achieved, so I was really very happy about this, very excited."

Within hours, officials announced that China's space dreams would continue with another Shenzhou mission, possibly within two years, and with plans to eventually send up a space station. They ruled out building an American-style space shuttle.

Yang approached his targeted landing spot from the west, sweeping over the rugged mountains of China's border with Central Asia. As Shenzhou's parachute unfurled, rescue trucks and helicopters hurried in preparation.

Within minutes, Yang was on the ground. He was said to be carrying weapons for protection against wild animals, but he didn't need them: Mission control said he landed 2.4 miles from his target and was quickly located, encircled, retrieved.

Filmed by state television, he clambered from the kettle-shaped capsule, grabbing the hatch and pulling himself out as he waved at rescuers and shook away the sluggishness of space.

"It is a splendid moment in the history of my motherland — and also the greatest day of my life," he said after removing his helmet.

Medical tests showed Yang was healthy, the government said. He was hustled to Beijing by helicopter, then taken away in a minibus wrapped in a red ribbon as crowds gathered for celebration in a public plaza. Newspapers published color-drenched extra editions that sold briskly.

"Great Leap Skyward," the state-controlled China Daily newspaper enthused.

People across the country basked in the accomplishment — from a grinning Premier Wen Jiabao, who spoke with Yang after the "taikonaut" landed, to ordinary Chinese on the Gobi Desert plateau where Shenzhou 5 was launched Wednesday morning. Taikonaut is an English nickname based on the Chinese word for space, "taikong."

"See how China is growing and developing? Now everybody is watching," said Zheng Tao, a machinery salesman from the western Chinese city of Yinchuan.

Chen-non Kway, a common worker in Beijing, told Gibson the whole country was glued to its televisions and was extremely happy at the successful touchdown.

Yang, 38, a second-generation People's Liberation Army fighter pilot, became an instant celebrity, lauded by a state-controlled press that played down the fact that China's space program is linked to its military and thus cloaked in secrecy.

During his 21½ hours in space and 14 orbits, Yang's canonization unfolded on national TV with each tiny action in his cramped craft — holding up Chinese and United Nations flags, vowing to do a good job, talking to his 8-year-old "dear son" back home.

Li Jinai, head of China's manned space program, called Yang a "space hero." And the program's chief engineer, Xie Mingbao, offered the entire nation's thanks.

"Today, the 16th of October, is a day the Chinese people will remember and treasure. For this is the first time that we achieved manned spaceflight," Xie said.

International congratulations also poured in. NASA called it "an important achievement in the history of human exploration."

Aboard the International Space Station, American astronaut Edward Lu, whose parents were born in China, spoke in Chinese as he addressed these wishes to Yang: "Welcome to space."

His colleague, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, told U.S. Mission Control in Houston: "I am glad to have somebody else in space instead of me and Ed. Also, I know it was great work by thousands and thousands of people from China."

The Shenzhou, or "Sacred Vessel," is based on the three-seat Russian Soyuz capsule, though with extensive modifications. Shenzhou 5 had 52 engines for precise calibrations, the government said, and traveled 370,000 miles.

Yang, an astronaut since 1998, was picked for the flight from three finalists. They trained for years, and the field was narrowed from 14 in recent weeks. His trip came after four test flights, beginning in 1999, of unmanned Shenzhou capsules.

China has had a rocketry program since the 1950s. It launched a manned space program in the 1970s amid the political upheaval of Mao Zedong's 1966-76 Cultural Revolution but later abandoned it. The program was relaunched in 1992 under the code name Project 921.

The budget for the manned space program has long been secret, but Xie said Thursday — for the first time publicly — that it has cost $2.18 billion so far — a major commitment for China, where the average person makes $700 a year.
  • David Hancock

    David Hancock is a home page editor for CBSNews.com.

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