From space, Lt. Col. Yang Liwei told his family: "It looks extremely splendid around here."
The Shenzhou 5 capsule carrying Yang, a 38-year-old fighter pilot, was to orbit Earth for 21 hours, the government said. CBS News Correspondent Peter King reports the craft was due to land sometime after 6 p.m. EDT.
The voyage is a propaganda prize in which communist leaders have invested 11 years and untold resources, hoping to boost China's prestige as a major power and to shore up respect at home for the ruling party.
Yang's rocket blasted off from a Gobi Desert base northeast of this city in China's northwest. It pierced a cloudless, azure sky as President Hu Jintao and a group of senior officials and military officers watched from the base.
The capsule entered orbit 10 minutes later, and the government said it was functioning normally.
"I send greetings to all the peoples of the world," the official Xinhua News Agency quoted Yang as saying during a chat by radio with his boss, Defense Minister Cao Gangchuan.
From abroad, congratulations poured in.
"It seems we have a new rival," said Hiroshi Inoue, a spokesman for Japan's space agency. "But since this is not a war, China is not a threat. This could be beneficial to the space development technology for the rest of the world."
NASA, whose space shuttle Columbia was lost in February, called it "an important achievement in the history of human exploration."
"The Chinese people have a long and distinguished history of exploration," said NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe. He wished China "a continued safe human space flight program."
In Baikonur, Kazakhstan, where the Soviet Union pioneered manned spaceflight, the first deputy head of the Russian space agency said his staffers "simply welcome the event and are happy for them." But Nikolai Moiseyev noted Russia's involvement, too.
"Often, we are asked, 'Did Russia nourish the Chinese cosmonauts?' I have to say that Russia has fed all the world's space programs," Moiseyev said.
China has had a rocketry program since the 1950s, launched its first satellite in 1970 and has dreamed of manned spaceflight for three decades. Its current manned program was launched in 1992 under the code name Project 921.
The flight comes four decades after the former Soviet Union and the United States pioneered manned spaceflight. Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited Earth in 1961. Less than one month later, the United States launched Alan B. Shepard Jr. In 1962, John Glenn became the first American in orbit.
The launch is "the glory of our great motherland," Xinhua quoted Hu as saying. "The party and the people will never forget those who have set up the outstanding merit in the space industry for the motherland, the people and the nation."
China's leaders rely on such flag-waving appeals to nationalism to bind their country together, having long ago discarded leftist ideology in favor of economic reform.
"It's great! We Chinese should have gone into space a long time ago," said a Jiuquan dumpling shop owner, who would give only his surname, Hou.
CBS News' Jeff Gibson reports many Chinese planned to set off fireworks after work. Some said the space launch was more important than acquiring the 2008 Olympics.
Still, the secrecy of the military-linked space program blunted the drama of the launch.
The time wasn't announced in advance. China Central Television reported the launch five minutes after it occurred and waited 28 minutes to show the first scenes of the rocket roaring off its pad to stirring music that sounded strikingly like the "Star Wars" theme.
Yang's identity wasn't disclosed until he was racing toward orbit.
"We did not know that the launch would happen today, so when we read it in the newspaper we were surprised and feel regret that we didn't know it," said a tourist in Beijing who would give only her surname, Wang. "Anyway, we are very proud of it."
CCTV showed space workers cheering Yang at an outdoor pre-dawn ceremony at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, 175 miles northeast of the city of Jiuquan. Dressed in his space suit with the visor up, he waved to the crowd and saluted other officers.
"You carry the dreams of our nation into space with you," Hu told Yang before the launch. The astronaut replied, "Thanks to you, and thanks to the people, for putting confidence in me."
In orbit, Yang had a lunch of diced chicken and rice with dates and nuts, and then took a three-hour "sweet space snooze," Xinhua said. It said he unfurled the flags of China and the United Nations for ground control to see.
Yang also spoke to his wife and their 8-year-old son, Xinhua said. "I'm feeling very good in space, and it looks extremely splendid around here," he told his wife, Zhang Yumei, who also works for the space program. And he said hello to his "dear son."
Yang, an astronaut since 1998, was picked for the flight from among three finalists. The field recently was narrowed from 14.
The launch comes after four test flights of unmanned Shenzhou capsules, beginning in 1990. The budget for the program is secret, but foreign experts say it totals at least $1 billion.
Even Xinhua said some in China had trouble believing the country had sent a man into space.
"Is there really a human being in that flame-shooting thing?" a 64-year-old Tibetan named Namgyai was quoted as saying. After being assured it was true, he exclaimed: "Science is really marvelous. Sending a man to the sky? I had never even dreamed of it!"