Three Chinese astronauts emerged from their capsule today upon a jubilant return to Earth after successfully completing the country’s first-ever spacewalk mission.
State broadcaster CCTV showed their Shenzhou 7 spaceship landing under clear skies in the grasslands of China’s northern Inner Mongolia region at 5:37pm (10.37am Irish Time). Premier Wen Jiabao applauded at mission control in Beijing.
“The astronauts feel very good,” mission commander Zhai Zhigang said as the vessel floated down to Earth under a red and white striped giant parachute.
After landing, the astronauts sipped bottled water as they were given medical examinations inside the module. They stayed inside for about 46 minutes to adapt to Earth’s gravity before slowly crawling out of the narrow entrance.
The astronauts waved as they emerged and sat on blue fold-out chairs outside the capsule. They were each presented with a bouquet of flowers.
“It was a glorious mission, full of challenges with a successful end,” Mr Zhai said. “We feel proud of the motherland.”
Saturday’s space walk, which was broadcast live and watched by crowds gathered around outdoor television screens, further stoked national pride one month after the close of the Beijing Olympics.
The spacewalk was mainly aimed at testing China’s mastery of the technology involved. Mr Zhai’s sole task was to retrieve a rack attached to the outside of the orbital module containing an experiment involving solid lubricants.
Tethered to handles attached to the Shenzhou 7 ship’s orbital module, Mr Zhai remained outside for about 13 minutes before climbing back inside.
The successful spacewalk paves the way for assembling a space station from two Shenzhou orbital modules, the next major goal of China’s manned spaceflight program.
China is also pursuing lunar exploration and may attempt to land a man on the moon in the next decade – possibly ahead of Nasa’s 2020 target date for returning to the moon.