China Spacecraft Returns To Earth

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

China's first astronaut in space returned safely to Earth on Thursday when his craft touched down as planned after 21 hours in orbit. Beijing's mission control declared the country's landmark debut flight "a success."

The craft carrying Lt. Col. Yang Liwei touched down on the grasslands of Inner Mongolia in northern China as planned at dawn Thursday local time, the official Xinhua News Agency said. Minutes later, he emerged from the capsule without help and waved at rescuers, though footage showed him appearing a bit dazed.

The government said Shenzhou 5 landed at 6:23 a.m. local time.

"The mission was a success," said Li Jinai, the head of China's manned space program. He called Yang a "space hero."

The completion of the mission was the crowning achievement of an 11-year, military-linked manned space program promoted as a symbol of national prestige both at home and abroad. The country's premier, Wen Jiabao, immediately spoke to Yang from Beijing and offered his congratulations.

The government said Yang's condition was "good," and the Web site Sina.com said he would undergo an immediate physical exam.

Yang, a 38-year-old fighter pilot turned astronaut, landed just 3 miles from his target, the government said.

China had a lot riding on a successful mission: money, national pride and global power politics. And government officials have made it plain China eventually plans to shoot for the moon, reports CBS News Anchor Dan Rather.

The flight came four decades after the former Soviet Union and the United States pioneered manned spaceflight. Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth in 1961. Less than one month later, the United States launched Alan B. Shepard Jr.

Yang's landing came after Shenzhou 5 orbited the Earth 14 times. Though the government has been very secretive about its space program, it offered frequent glimpses of Yang throughout the trip and repeatedly said everything was going fine.

Helicopters and trucks rushed to retrieve Yang. Earlier reports said the astronaut would be armed with knives and possibly a gun to protect himself against wild animals and other threats in the Inner Mongolian grasslands where the ship was to touch down.

Xinhua said the Beijing Aerospace Command and Control Center sent a message at about 5:35 a.m. Thursday local time to Shenzhou 5 instructing it to return as planned. Shenzhou 5, shown on a screen in the mission control center, made a gentle turnaround upon receiving the order, Xinhua said.

While in orbit, Yang spoke to his family, telling them it looked "splendid" in space. He also had a conversation with the country's defense minister, unfurled the flags of China and the United Nations and took a nap.

Yang, an astronaut since 1998, was picked for the flight from three finalists. They have 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 the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution but later abandoned it. The program was relaunched in 1992 under the code name Project 921.

The budget for the program is secret, but foreign experts say it totals at least $1 billion — a major commitment for China, where the average person makes $700 a year.

The Shenzhou, or "Divine Vessel," is based on the three-seat Russian Soyuz capsule, though with extensive modifications.

A day before Yang's landing, the rocket carrying him streaked into a clear blue sky from a Gobi Desert launch pad in China's remote northwest. The government said the capsule entered orbit 10 minutes later.

CCTV's flagship channel broke into its programming to announce the liftoff, and 28 minutes later broadcast the first gripping scenes of the rocket blasting off. It ran stirring music that was strikingly similar to both the "Star Wars" and "Superman" themes.

Yang hurtled around the planet for the rest of Wednesday, making a planned orbit shift in midafternoon and stopping work only to rest and eat Chinese food designed especially for space travel.

With his mission nearly half over, he spoke to ground control and his boss. "Don't worry — I'm going to work hard to accomplish the task," he told Defense Minister Cao Gangchuan.

Later, Yang spoke to his wife and their 8-year-old son from space, Xinhua reported. "I'm feeling very good in space, and it looks extremely splendid around here," he told his wife, Zhang Yumei, who also works for China's space program. And he said hello to his "dear son."

Yang also unfurled two flags for ground control to see — China's and the United Nations' as well, to "highlight China's persistent stand for peaceful exploration and exploitation of space," the government said.

Chinese President Hu Jintao, at the launch base for the Shenzhou liftoff, called it "the glory of our great motherland."

"You carry the dreams of our nation into space with you," Hu told Yang before the launch. The taikonaut (TYE'-koh-nawt) replied, "Thanks to you, and thanks to the people, for putting confidence in me."

Taikonaut is an English nickname based on the Chinese word for space, "taikong."

China's leaders long ago replaced their leftist ideology with sweeping economic reform, and resort instead to flag-waving nationalistic appeals to bind their nation together.

The United States and other governments congratulated China on what the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, whose Space Shuttle Columbia was lost in February, called "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, Rosaviakosmos, 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.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan also extended "warm congratulations."

"He notes that as the exploration of space knows no national borders, the mission of the Shenzhou 5 is a step forward for all humankind," U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said at U.N. headquarters in New York.
  • David Hancock

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

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