Chinese spacecraft returns safely to Earth


China's three astronauts landed safely back on Earth today after a challenging voyage, including a space walk, that showcased the country's technological mastery and put it one step closer to landing a man on the Moon.

Spacewalker Zhai Zhigang and two other astronauts on board the Shenzhou VII landed around 09.40 GMT on the steppes of northern Inner Mongolia region, where helicopters with crews trained in search and rescue were on stand-by.

The men, who told mission control that they were safe and well, can expect a heroes' welcome from the whole country when they have recovered from the journey and are allowed out of quarantine, which the official Xinhua agency said will last around half a month.

Previous space pioneers, now national icons, have been showered with tributes and gifts ranging from luxury housing for their families to traditional operas performed in their honour.

Zhai's successful space walk in a $4.4 million, domestically designed, suit caps an eventful year for China in which it has both coped with the tragedy of the devastating Sichuan earthquake and revelled in the Beijing Olympics.

It was China's third manned space mission. The ability to space walk is key to a longer-term goal of assembling a space lab and then a larger space station, and maybe one day making a landing on the moon.

The fast-growing Asian power wants to be sure of a say in the future use of space and its resources, and its space programme has come a long way since late leader Mao Zedong lamented that China could not even launch a potato into space.

On Saturday, during his 20 minutes outside the craft - but tethered to it to prevent him floating off - Zhai unveiled a small Chinese flag.

China's first manned spaceflight was in 2003, followed by a two-man flight in 2005. The only other countries that have sent people into space are Russia and the United States.

The three men were cut off for around three minutes as their re-entry module entered the outer edge of the Earth's atmosphere.

About 50 km above the ground a parachute opened and floated them down to the flat, empty grassland where all China's earlier space missions have also landed.

The expensive space suit had to be left behind however, as it was too heavy and bulky to fit in the re-entry capsule, state television said.