China's spacemen return to outburst of patriotic fervour

The pre-dawn landing of the Shenzhou 6 capsule on the country's northern grasslands was shown live on television. Scenes of the astronauts Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng emerging smiling and waving were shown throughout the day on television, sparking an outpouring of patriotic excitement.

"It's really incredible and we're all filled with pride," said Li Guoqiang, a Shanghai electrician. "It's about developing and expressing our national strength."

Mr Fei and Mr Nie were flown to Beijing, and rode in an open car in a parade past thousands of cheering soldiers at a military base.

State television showed residents of Mr Fei's home town of Kunshan, west of Shanghai, setting off firecrackers and weeping with joy.

"This will further improve the country's international status and national strength, and will help to mobilise its people to rally around the Communist Party and work harder for the future of the country," said Wu Bangguo, the party's No 2 leader, who watched the landing at a control centre in Beijing.

The capsule touched down by parachute at 4.32am (8.32pm on Sunday British time), abouthalf a mile from its target in the Inner Mongolia region, the official Xinhua News Agency said.

Television showed the astronauts climbing out of their kettle-shaped capsule with the help of two technicians in red jumpsuits and clambering down a ladder in darkness. They accepted bouquets of flowers and sat in metal chairs beside the spacecraft. "I want to thank the people for their love and care. Thank you very much," Mr Fei said.

Hours later, an official announced China's next ambition: a possible space walk in 2007. "Our estimate is that around 2007 we will be able to achieve extravehicular activity by our astronauts and they will walk in space," said Tang Xiangming, director of the China Manned Space Engineering Office. Mr Tang said the programme may recruit women in its next group of astronaut candidates.

Mr Fei and Mr Nie blasted off on Wednesday from a base in China's north-western desert, almost exactly two years after the first Chinese manned space flight made this only the third country to send a human into orbit on its own, after Russia and the United States.

State media broke with the military-linked space programme's usual secrecy and showed intimate scenes of Mr Fei and Mr Nie working and playing in orbit, turning somersaults and setting morsels of food floating in zero gravity. Last week, Mr Nie's 11-year-old daughter was shown singing to him as he celebrated his 41st birthday in orbit.

Communist leaders apparently hope the greater openness will engage the Chinese public, after the secrecy that shrouded the country's first space flight in 2003 blunted its propaganda value.

"Today, every son of the Yellow Emperor feels very proud," said the Shanghai furniture salesman Zhang Jinhua, 34, referring to the legendary founder of the Chinese nation.

Communist leaders hope that such sentiment will shore up their standing at a time of public frustration at corruption, wrenching economic change and a growing gap between rich and poor.

The flight cost some 900m yuan (£63m). The manned space programme, which began in 1992, has a fraction of the budget of its American counterpart.

China has had a rocketry programme since the 1950s and launched its first satellite in 1970.

The Shenzhou 6 is a modified version of Russia's Soyuz capsule.

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