Two Chinese astronauts bumped to Earth in the thinly populated Inner Mongolian plains Monday after nearly five days in orbit, bringing China's second manned spaceflight to a successful conclusion and igniting a burst of patriotic fervor.
Technicians broke into applause as Fei Junlong, 40, and Nie Haisheng, 41, were shown on official television climbing from the Shenzhou VI's round reentry module and waving to the recovery team that greeted them at 4:33 a.m. in predawn darkness. Both men were proclaimed in good health after preliminary medical checks, the official New China News Agency said, and they ate a breakfast of chocolate and herbal tea followed by instant noodles.
Wang Yongzhi, the Chinese space program's chief general designer, told the agency that the low-orbit flight marked an important step forward in the nation's long-term ambitions for space exploration. The program, which is managed by the military, plans to send up another pair of astronauts in 2007 and have them walk in space. The goals are to set up an orbiting space laboratory and put an unmanned vehicle on the moon by the end of the decade.
China first launched a manned spacecraft in October 2003, when Col. Yang Liwei rode the Shenzhou V into orbit for 21 hours. Previously, only Russia and the United States had mastered the technology necessary for manned spaceflight. China's entry into the exclusive club was hailed here as a symbol of the country's economic and scientific power after more than two decades of reforms that have in many respects shifted it away from doctrinaire communism.
Some U.S. specialists, noting the military's leadership role, have suggested China has military applications in mind for its space program. The same technology that sends men into space, they have noted, can boost Chinese efforts to set up space-based navigation for cruise missiles or develop weapons to cripple orbiting U.S. military equipment.
But Chinese officials have repeatedly insisted they have no such intentions. In international forums, they have consistently opposed putting weapons into space.
At the same time, Chinese officials have made no secret of their delight at the national pride generated by spaceflights. Wu Bangguo, head of the National People's Congress and a senior Communist Party leader, hailed Monday's successful landing for its "great significance in raising China's international status, our economy and technical strength, defense and national cohesion."
In the same spirit, the New China News Agency quoted Fei's father as saying, "The motherland is so great" when he heard the news of his son's safe return.
"Let us raise a welcoming toast to our heroes," the agency said in its own commentary. "The two men's space journey has touched 1.3 billion beating hearts."