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Reuters: China's first space hero returns to Earth
( 2003-10-16 11:14) (Reuters)

Looking slightly dazed at all the fuss, China's first man in space returned to a hero's welcome on Thursday, completing an historic odyssey four decades after the Soviet Union and the United States pioneered manned spaceflight.

Yang Liwei emerged from the Shenzhou V capsule and waved, drawing cheers from the horde of 600 locals, recovery workers and police who greeted him on the chill, sunlit steppes of Inner Mongolia.

Suspended by a giant parachute, the bronze-colored capsule carrying the "taikonaut," coined from the Chinese word for space, touched down at around 6:23 a.m. (6:23 p.m. EDT Wednesday) after a 21-hour journey that took him around the world 14 times.

Premier Wen Jiabao sent immediate congratulations, hailing the mission as a "complete success" after a chat with Yang.

The 38-year-old fighter pilot turned astronaut, raised in China's decaying northeast "rust belt," was presented with flowers and ribbons by well-wishers and then carried in a chair to awaiting doctors for a checkup.

"The spacecraft operated smoothly. I'm feeling good. I'm proud of my motherland," Yang said before being whisked off for a flight to the capital, Beijing.

His return brought a triumphant climax to China's maiden space voyage that came four decades after Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin and American astronaut Alan Shepard pioneered manned space flight in 1961.

The mission marked the crowning moment for a program launched by Mao Zedong in 1958 but quickly left far behind in the Cold War "space race" rivalry that saw the United States put a man on the moon in 1969.

A year later, China launched its first satellite aboard a Long March rocket, which orbited the Earth blaring out the Cultural Revolution anthem "The East is Red."

Yang's feat highlighted the emerging power of China, a permanent U.N. Security Council member now pursuing more active diplomacy, one of the world's fastest growing economies and chosen host of the 2008 Olympics.

"Our space hero Yang Liwei walked out of the capsule himself," mission commander Li Jinai was quoted by Xinhua as saying. "Our country's first manned space flight achieved complete success."

In a mission that appeared to run like clockwork, a Long March 2F China lifted off into a clear blue sky over the Gobi desert at 9 a.m. on Wednesday (9 p.m. EDT on Tuesday) and entered its predetermined orbit 10 minutes later.


Yang punctuated his journey with updates on his condition -- variations of "I feel good" -- the last of the voyage coming as the capsule floated to the ground after re-entry.

He spoke to his wife as the Shenzhou, or "Divine Ship," started its eighth circuit around the Earth, assuring her from space: "I feel very good, don't worry."

His son, who also talked to his father in space, had become the "instant envy" of his classmates, giving him bragging rights as the only student in China to be able to claim: "My dad is an astronaut."

Yang, a lieutenant colonel in the People's Liberation Army, was chosen from a pool of 14 contenders. He is the son of a teacher and an official at an agricultural firm and was raised in the northeast "rustbelt" province of Liaoning.

State media said Yang's capsule was supplied with a gun, a knife and tent in case he landed in the wrong place.

Accolades poured in after China successfully put Yang into orbit. In the United States, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe described the launch as an important achievement.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan added his congratulations, noting that, "as the exploration of space knows no national borders, the mission of the Shenzhou V is a step forward for all humankind."

In the middle of the more than 370,000-mile journey, state television broadcast footage of Yang waving small Chinese and U.N. flags inside his capsule.

Crew members set to blast off to the International Space Station  (ISS) called China a serious contender in the race for supremacy in space.

"Do I see China as a potential rival? Yes, not only in space, but already commercially, economically. I think militarily it's also a possibility," U.S. astronaut Michael Foale, commander of Expedition 8 to the ISS, told Reuters.

A tight veil of secrecy has blanketed the space program. State-controlled television delayed broadcasts of the launch and re-entry -- airing footage only after the mission had been declared a success.

On the Internet, anonymous commentators gave full vent to their emotions.

"Today is your holiday, my motherland. Today is your holiday, my Divine Ship. Today is your holiday, my countrymen. Today is your holiday, our Liwei," wrote one person in a dedication to Yang on the portal Sina.com.

"When will we launch a shuttle?" asked another.

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