A Chinese space capsule touched down on an isolated patch of the Gobi Desert Thursday, successfully completing China's first manned space mission and bringing back to Earth a new hero, Lt. Col. Yang Liwei.
Shenzhou 5, or Divine Vessel 5, landed at 6:23 a.m. after orbiting the globe 14 times in a 21-hour mission, making China the third country after Russia and the United States to send a man into space.
"Astronaut Yang Liwei's health and spirit seem excellent!" a state-run television journalist reported from the barren landing zone reached by a rescue team at 6:36 a.m. Yang emerged from the capsule eight minutes later and waved to the joyous crowd of soldiers.
"The whole world will remember this Chinese name, Yang Liwei," crowed the People's Liberation Army Daily, the official military newspaper, about the 38-year-old air force officer.
Shenzhou 5 reentered Earth's atmosphere at 6:04 a.m. (6:04 p.m. EDT Wednesday) and opened its parachute about 20 miles above the ground. It was guided by four tracking ships in the Pacific Ocean, Indian Ocean and southern Atlantic Ocean.
When it reentered the atmosphere, a Chinese tracking, telemetry and command station in Namibia transmitted the order for the spacecraft to fire its retrorockets. The Shenzhou capsule then flew over Africa and Pakistan before beginning its descent over Tibet. The heat shield was jettisoned and rockets to soften the landing fired about five feet off the ground as the capsule touched down on the desert of Inner Mongolia.
Yang took off on a Long March 2F rocket Wednesday morning, 11 years after China resumed its program to launch a man into space and 42 years after Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin and American astronaut Alan Shepard traveled in space. China's Communist leadership gathered for the liftoff at the Jiuquan launching site 1,000 miles west of Beijing and at a mission control center outside Beijing. By late afternoon, the capsule had completed half the mission and it was going smoothly, state-run media said.
"You carry the dreams of our nation into space with you," President Hu Jintao told Yang as he sat behind a glass wall minutes before takeoff.
"Thanks to you, and thanks to the people, for putting confidence in me," Yang replied.
After the Long March rocket had shot Yang's capsule into orbit, Yang radioed a short sentence back to mission control: "I feel good." He hurtled around the planet for most of the day, making a planned orbit shift in mid-afternoon. Yang dined on diced chicken, shredded pork with garlic sauce and rice with dates and nuts, washed down with Chinese tea, and then took a three-hour "sweet space snooze," the New China News Agency reported. It said he unfurled the flags of China and the United Nations for ground control to see.
China kept the identity of the astronaut a secret until the launch; then the state-run press cranked into high gear with not only his name but his life story as the Communist Party trumpeted the mission.
Yang was driven to prove he had the right stuff, the army's newspaper said. More than 1,000 air force pilots competed for the job; only 14 were selected. Two underwent training in Russia and then returned to train China's taikonauts -- taikong means outer space. They are known as yuhangyuan in Chinese.
"Whenever this man trains, his eyes become very bright," the paper said. During five key tests to become China's first astronaut, it said, Yang scored three 100s and two 99s. To prepare for a G-force exercise, he would spin in circles on his living room floor. Every waking moment was devoted to becoming the best he could be.
Yang, the story went, hails from Liaoning province, northeast China's rust belt, a region full of "the tragic lessons of China's history" -- its defeat in the Sino-Japanese War at the end of the 19th century, the Boxer Rebellion at the beginning of the 20th and Japan's occupation of China during World War II.
It is here, the piece said, that Chinese were inculcated with a spirit of fearless resistance in their hearts and "a commitment to the revitalization of the Chinese race."
Yang was described as a naughty boy with a good mind, a winner of math competitions who spent his summers skinny-dipping in the Bohai Sea and heading off on adventures with his pals from the countryside.
Yang joined the air force at age 18. When he was a young pilot, his plane's engine conked out over the Turfan Basin in northwestern Xinjiang province, the report said. Yang somehow got the engine working again and maneuvered the plane 500 yards higher to escape an escarpment, but the engine died again. Yang then made a perfect emergency landing, earning an automatic promotion.
Yang's relationship with his wife, Zhang Yumei, the paper said, was a picture of perfection. "She never complained a word," it said. She helped him score 100 on an English test. When she had a kidney operation, Yang spent the night by her bedside. He lost three pounds over the evening. His wife never let him visit her again in the hospital, the paper said. To his 8-year-old son, the paper said, Yang was a larger-than-life hero. His son wrote a paean to his father for grade school and won a $2 prize -- something that made his father burst with pride.
Yang joined the program to become an astronaut in 1998. Then-President Jiang Zemin had resumed the manned space program in 1992; it had been canceled in the 1970s for lack of funds. Chinese journalists said Jiang, who remains the head of the Central Military Commission, China's highest military body, had been scheduled to speak with Yang during his orbit and was expected at the Jiuquan launching site. But he did not appear, journalists said.
On two occasions on state-run TV news Wednesday night, Hu was shown saying that he was representing Jiang. Later, Gen. Cao Gangchuan, the head of China's space program, was shown speaking to Yang while he was in orbit. Cao also said he was representing Jiang, whose failure to appear prompted some speculation about his political standing. Hu, his successor, dominated Wednesday night's news, which aired long portions of two of his speeches on the space launch.
But beyond the propaganda, there was a sense of joy and wonder among many Chinese that their country, which they have been taught has been downtrodden for 150 years, had joined another elite club.
"I am proud that we Chinese have the capability to worry about our astronaut," said Zhou Qingan, a 26-year-old PhD candidate at Tsinghua University. "Just imagine if we were a poor country and had no advanced technology, then it would not be necessary for us to worry about him at all."
Aboard the international space station, according to the Associated Press, American astronaut Edward Lu, whose parents were born in China, spoke in Chinese as he addressed these wishes to Yang: "Welcome to space" and "Have a safe journey and I wish you success."
His colleague, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, told Mission Control in Houston: "I am glad to have somebody else in space instead of me and Ed. Also, I know it was great work by thousands and thousands of people from China."