China sends man into space

China became the third country in history to send a man into space today - four decades after the former 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 9am (midnight GMT) and went into orbit 10 minutes later.

The astronaut is air force Lieutenant Colonel Yang Liwei, aged 38. State media said the manned flight is expected to last about 20 hours.

"I feel good," Colonel Yang radioed back 30 minutes into the flight. He told his doctor that his blood pressure and other vital signs were "normal."

The launch makes China the third country to put a human into space on its own. The former Soviet Union sent Yuri Gagarin into orbit in April 1961; the United States launched Alan B. Shepard Jr. less than a month later. John Glenn became the first American in orbit in 1962.

Chinese President Hu Jintao, who watched the launch, called it "the glory of our great motherland. 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."

"This launch is an important achievement in the history of human exploration," NASA said in a statement. "The Chinese people have a long and distinguished history of exploration. NASA wishes China a continued safe human space flight program."

China kept details of the launch 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.

China Central Television's Channel One, the government's flagship station, cut into its programming to announce the launch and to say that Shenzhou 5 and Yang had "entered orbit at 9:10." The station later showed Shenzhou streaking into the sky and disappearing, its tracer billowing behind it.

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."

The Shenzhou 5 launch came after four test launches of unmanned capsules that orbited the earth for nearly a week before parachuting back to northern China.

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