| Chinese astronaut Yang Liwei after landing on the grasslands of Inner Mongolian. (AP)
Beijing, Oct. 16 (Reuters): Looking slightly dazed at all the fuss, China’s first man in space returned to a hero’s welcome today, completing an historic odyssey four decades after the Soviet Union and the US 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, sun-lit steppes of Inner Mongolia.
Suspended by a giant parachute, the bronze-coloured capsule carrying the “taikonaut”, coined from the Chinese word for space, touched down at around 2223 GMT 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 programme launched by Mao Zedong in 1958.
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 UN 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 0100 GMT yesterday and entered its predetermined orbit 10 minutes later.