China Astronauts Prepare for Hero's Welcome on Earth

China's astronauts were set for a triumphant return to Earth on Sunday after making the country's first spacewalk, with a hero's welcome awaiting the three men whose exploits captivated the nation.

The Long-March II-F rocket carrying the Shenzhou VII manned spacecraft blasts off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, Gansu province September 25, 2008. (AFP Photo)

Commander Zhai Zhigang etched his name in the history books of this country of 1.3 billion people with a 15-minute walk in space Saturday that set another milestone in China's transformation into a global power.

"I feel well," Zhai said from outside the Shenzhou VII, after countless millions around the globe watched live on television as China joined the United States and the former Soviet Union as the only nations to complete a spacewalk.

"I am greeting the Chinese people and the people of the world," he said.

Zhai emerged from the module holding the Chinese flag -- a moment of great drama and symbolism just days before the 50th anniversary of the US space agency NASA on Wednesday, which is also China's National Day.

In a televised chat with Zhai live from mission control, President Hu Jintao praised the 41-year-old commander.

"Your spacewalk was a complete success. It's a major breakthrough in the development of our manned space programme," Hu said. "The motherland and the people thank you."

As the Shenzhou VII prepared to touch back down in Inner Mongolia around 0900 GMT with Zhai and fellow crew members Liu Boming and Jing Haipeng, a surge of national pride swept the nation.

"I felt so proud when I saw Zhai Zhigang emerge from the cabin with the Chinese flag. Seeing the five-starred red flag in space, it shows China can do anything it sets its mind to," said He Changqiang, a Beijing businessman.

Online forums overflowed with ecstatic declarations of China's greatness.

"With the flag flying over the cosmos, space has now become part of the great Chinese motherland," said one user on popular Internet portal Sohu.com.

The spacewalk was the highlight of the three-man, three-day voyage -- China's third manned foray into space -- and is considered an important step towards China's plans to building a space station.

It comes four decades after American and Soviet astronauts did the same, at a time when China was mired in political chaos, poverty and isolation.

"Following the Soviets and Americans, the black-haired and yellow-skinned Chinese have now left a footprint in space," declared a Beijing Youth Daily commentary, which also evoked the words of the first man to walk on the moon, US astronaut Neil Armstrong.

"This is one small step for a man, but one giant leap for the country," it said.

Tethered to the craft with two safety wires, Zhai retrieved a test sample of a solid lubricant placed outside the orbital module.

The modest drill was intended to replicate the type of task that future spacewalkers will have to perform.

A fire alert that was heard during the live transmission of the spacewalk turned out to be a mistake in one of the sensors, mission headquarters said.

After re-entering the atmosphere, the orbiter is slated to descend safely to Earth via giant parachutes, with the craft firing its thrusters to further cushion the landing.

The full hero's welcome will have to wait at least 10 days, however, as Zhai and his comrades are due to be quarantined for medical and other checks that are now routine for Chinese astronauts, state press said Sunday.

As part of China's space programme, two more unmanned craft will be launched by 2010, as well as another manned spaceship with a crew of three to start work on the lab or space station, according to the China Daily.

After China sent its first man into space in 2003, it followed up with a two-man mission in 2005.

Source: AFP

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