China's long march into space takes a giant leap forward

First astronaut returns to Earth after 21 orbits in space
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The Independent Online

"Extremely splendid" was how Yang Liwei, China's first astronaut, described the view of the Earth hundreds of miles below.

His delight was reflected in all those in charge of the mission finally to join the United States and Russia in sending a human into space - more than 42 years after the Russians sent Yuri Gagarin aloft, followed within a month by Alan Shepard from the US.

Lt-Col Yang Liwei returned safely to Earth today after 21 hours in orbit and was immediately hailed as "a space hero."

Beijing mission control declared the historic flight "a success" — and an elated government quickly outlined plans for more flights and even a permanent space station.

The capsule carrying Lt-Col Yang touched down on the grasslands of Inner Mongolia in northern China as planned at dawn, the official Xinhua News Agency said. Minutes later, the "taikonaut" grabbed the capsule hatch, pulled himself out and waved at rescuers.

He came down three miles from his target — about 300 miles north-west of Beijing.

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

The Chinese government announced plans to eventually establish a permanent space station — and launch another Shenzhou capsule within a year or two. This week's triumph, it said, is only the first step.

Observers said China was unconcerned by its late entry to the space race, and that it intended to extract the maximum military value from its achievement, as well as supplanting Russia as the second space power behind the United States.

The military venture has already begun. The Shenzhou 5 capsule (Shenzhou means Divine Vessel) - a heavily modified version of a three-seat Russian Soyuz design - has left behind an orbital module containing high-resolution cameras and signals monitoring equipment. Lt-Col Yang, a 38-year-old fighter pilot, ended the mission after the scheduled 14 orbits, lasting about 21 hours, returning to Earth in the larger capsule.

The orbital module has been specially designed by the Chinese, said Peter Bond, space science adviser to the Royal Astronomical Society, who has been following developments in the Chinese space programme over the past decade. "It can fly independently for six months, unlike the Soyuz," he said. "And the Pentagon recently wrote a report suggesting that the Chinese were developing means of blinding US reconnaissance satellites. The Chinese, however, always talk about using space for peace."

The rocket took off at about 2am BST from a launch pad in the Gobi desert. The capsule made an orbital shift in mid-afternoon which put it on an inclination taking it in a path over the US and Japan.

The US and Russia congratulated China on what the US space agency Nasa called "an important achievement in the history of human exploration."

The launch marks a decade-long effort by China's Communist leaders to boost the nation's image abroad and their standing at home among their own people.

China Central Television announced the lift-off, and 28 minutes later broadcast the first pictures of the rocket launch. Plans to show the launch live were cancelled and the belief is that Chinese leaders were worried about the political impact of an accident. China used to broadcast satellite launches, but stopped after a rocket blew up following lift-off in 1995, reportedly killing six people on the ground.

China has had a rocket programme since the 1950s. It launched a manned space programme in the 1970s but later abandoned it. The programme was relaunched in 1992 under the code name Project 921. The budget for the programme is secret, but foreign experts say it totals at least £700m - a huge commitment for China, where the average person earns about £350 a year.

Once in space, Lt-Col Yang stopped work only to rest and eat - diced chicken and rice with dates and nuts - and then took a three-hour nap.

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 Cao Gangchuan, the Defence Minister .

Later, Lt-Col Yang spoke to his wife and their 8-year-old son from space, the official Xinhua news agency 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 programme.

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