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China Completes Spaceflight

Nation's first astronaut, Lt. Col. Yang Liwei, returns from Earth orbit. 'I feel very good and I am proud of the motherland,' he says.

October 16, 2003|Ching-Ching Ni | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — China's first man in space returned to Earth early today, his reentry capsule parachuting onto the yellow grasslands of Inner Mongolia after a 21-hour journey that took him around the planet 14 times.

Lt. Col. Yang Liwei waved and smiled as rescue workers lifted him up in a chair and a crowd chanted greetings to their new hero.

"The spaceship operated very well. I feel very good and I am proud of the motherland," state television quoted Yang as saying before he was flown to the nation's capital for a formal welcome.

Yang's journey made China the third country to successfully put a human into space. The former Soviet Union, the first, sent Yuri Gagarin aboard the Vostok 1 in April 1961. About a month later, Alan Shepard of the United States flew into space on the Freedom 7.

For the Chinese, the flight represents a long-standing effort to catch up with the West and gain recognition as a modern power. China has come a long way since the mythical 16th century official Wan Hu attempted to fly into space by strapping arrow rockets and large kites around a wicker chair and shooting into the sky in a ball of fire.

Until the Shenzhou 5, or Divine Vessel, was launched into the northwestern Chinese sky Wednesday morning, little was known about the Chinese astronauts who had trained for the first voyage. Three finalists had been selected.

Yang's identity was not revealed until the morning of the flight. Even he claimed he did not know until the last moment. "When they ignite the rocket, that's when I'll know for sure," Yang told Chinese television in an interview before the flight.

Fearful of an accident, the government chose not to broadcast the blastoff live. But it replayed the successful launch again and again, along with patriotic music and glimpses of Yang's life in space.

From his cramped vessel, Yang was seen reading from a large notebook, talking to ground control in Beijing and greeting his wife, Zhang Yumei, and their 8-year-old son, describing the view outside as "splendid." His meals reportedly included green tea and spicy chicken.

Yang also unfurled the flags of China and the United Nations, said to highlight China's stand for peaceful exploration and exploitation of space.

"It's very high-tech. I don't understand it," said Li Yong, a 21-year-old college student in Beijing. "But I know it's very important for our country's international status. It's like having a nuclear bomb. Now the Chinese can speak with more authority."

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(Begin Text of Infobox)

Yang Liwei

* Career: Lt. Col. Yang Liwei is China's first taikonaut, a term based on the Chinese word for space. He joined the People's Liberation Army at 18 and graduated from the air force's No. 8 Aviation College. The 5-foot-6-inch pilot has 1,350 hours of flight experience.

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* Flight: Yang's meals in space reportedly included spicy chicken and shredded pork, fried rice and green tea. State media said the capsule was equipped with a gun, a knife and a tent in case Yang landed in the wrong place.

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* Family: Yang, the son of a teacher and an agricultural firm official, was raised in the northeastern province of Liaoning. He is married to Zhang Yumei, who also serves in the space program. They have an 8-year-old son.

Sources: Associated Press, Reuters

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