China launched its first manned space mission on Wednesday, becoming the third country in Earth's history to put a man in orbit — four decades after the Soviet Union and the United States.
With a column of smoke, the Shenzhou 5 craft cut across a bright, azure northwest China sky at exactly 9 a.m. local time. The official Xinhua News Agency immediately confirmed the launch and said the astronaut was air force Lt. Col. Yang Liwei, 38.
"China's first manned spacecraft, the Shenzhou 5, blasted off," Xinhua said. China Central Television's Channel One, the government's flagship station, cut into its programming to announce the launch; 28 minutes later, the station showed Shenzhou streaking into the sky and disappearing, its tracer billowing behind it.
Minutes after the launch, a CCTV announcer said that Shenzhou 5 and Yang had "entered orbit at 9:10 a.m." Xinhua said he was "reading a flight manual in the capsule of the Shenzhou-5 spacecraft and looked composed and at ease."
"I feel good," Yang radioed back from space after a half-hour in flight, according to Xinhua.
It was the culmination of a decade of efforts by China's military-linked manned space program — and a patriotism-drenched moment for a communist government more concerned than ever about its profile on the world stage.
Marcia Smith, Aerospace Policy Specialist of the Congressional Research Service told CBS News Correspondent Adaoro Udoji, "I think they wanted to get as much attention as they could to the fact that they were now joining a very elite club of countries that can launch humans into space.
"They are just the third country to be able to do it after the Soviet Union and the United States. Their launch has come 42 years after those first steps into outer space, but I think to them it's every bit as important as it was to the Soviet Union and our own country," she said.
The former Soviet Union sent Yuri Gagarin up in 1961; the United States launched Alan B. Shepard Jr. less than a month later.
An announcer on the English-language government channel CCTV-9 invoked American astronaut Neil Armstrong's words upon first walking on the moon. If China's earlier unmanned space launches "were small steps," the announcer said, "then now we are taking a giant leap into space."
Security was tight around the remote Gobi Desert base, some 175 miles northeast of Jiuquan.
On Wednesday morning, the only road to the launch site was crowded with traffic, including military vehicles and civilian tour buses. But private cars were turned back and phone calls to the base were blocked.
China kept details of the event secret, saying in advance only that the launch would take place between Wednesday and Friday and that the astronaut would orbit the Earth 14 times. Yang was identified as a lieutenant colonel.
The Shenzhou 5 launch came after four test launches of unmanned capsules that orbited the Earth for nearly a week before parachuting back to China's northern grasslands. State media say the manned flight is expected to last about 20 hours.
"The launch of Shenzhou 5 is long-awaited by the Chinese people," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue said earlier. She said the flight was a key step in the "peaceful development of space" — a reflection of China's effort to reassure the world that its military-linked program is benign.
The Shenzhou, or "Divine Vessel," is based on the three-seat Russian Soyuz capsule, though with extensive modifications. China also paid Moscow to train at least two astronauts.
Craig Covault, a senior editor for Aviation Week, told CBS News Correspondent Peter King the Chinese Shenzhou 5 is a little larger and more sophisticated than the Russian original it was modeled after.
But Beijing insists everything sent into space will be developed and made in China. State media, trying to dispel suggestions that its triumph depends on foreign know-how, refer to Shenzhou as "China's self-designed manned spaceship."
Xinhua released a picture of Yang, a pilot since 1983, boarding Shenzhou 5 about 8 a.m. local time Wednesday.
"I will not disappoint the motherland. I will complete each movement with total concentration. And I will gain honor for the People's Liberation Army and for the Chinese nation," the popular Chinese Web site Sina.com quoted Yang as saying.
Sohu said Yang was selected Tuesday from a pool of three finalists. The astronauts have been training for years, and the field of candidates was narrowed from 14 in recent days.
Xinhua quoted space officials Tuesday assuring the public that the astronauts' space suits were safe and the Long March CZ-2 F booster was China's "best rocket."
After months of official silence, the government showed growing confidence over the past week, announcing that the flight would blast off some time between Wednesday and Friday and splashing pictures of the once-secret launch base across newspapers.
But the decision to cancel a live broadcast suggested leaders might be unnerved by the thought of the propaganda disaster that an accident could produce. The People's Daily Web site gave no explanation for the decision to cancel.
China used to broadcast satellite launches live, but stopped in 1995 after a rocket blew up moments after liftoff, reportedly killing six people on the ground.
The Gansu Daily, published in Lanzhou, capital of the province where the ship was launched, welcomed the accomplishment.
"Finally," it said, "the time has come to realize the 1,000-year dream of flying dreamed by the sons and daughters of China."
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