BEIJING — A Chinese astronaut stepped outside the Shenzhou 7 spacecraft Saturday and waved a small red Chinese flag for the millions of his countrymen watching on live television and cheering over their nation's latest conquest.
With the 15-minute spacewalk, China became the third country to accomplish the feat, following the United States and Russia.
"In the vast space, I felt proud of our motherland," astronaut Zhai Zhigang later told Chinese President Hu Jintao, who was at the control center in Beijing. Hu peppered him with questions about how it felt to be in space, and thanked him for a major breakthrough.
During the spacewalk, the tethered Zhai floated near the spacecraft and performed tests on lubricants. But the event seemed to be as much about public relations as science.
Zhai, 41, grew up poor, supported by a mother who sold sunflower seeds at a market -- a biography that for many encapsulates the rags-to-riches story of the nation.
Chinese news media boasted that the $4.4-million spacesuit he wore outside the craft was made entirely in China, while two other crew members on the mission wore Russian suits. The spacewalk was the highlight of Shenzhou 7's 68-hour mission and took place Saturday afternoon Beijing time, a convenient moment for people to watch.
Viewers held their breath as Zhai initially struggled to open the hatch, and when a fire alarm went off in the orbiter. Officials later said the alarm was triggered by a faulty sensor.
"I had butterflies in my stomach the whole time. It is as though these astronauts are my own family. I was almost crying for them," said Yang Chang, a 32-year-old businessman who was watching television in a noodle shop in Beijing.
Yang said he had lost sleep, following the mission on live television since Thursday night, when the spacecraft was launched from the Gobi Desert. Television coverage of the mission has been constant, with reports on what the astronauts are eating for dinner (spicy chicken with peanuts, shrimp and dried fruit) and interviews with Zhai's neighbors and family in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang.
"The Olympics showed how developed our civilization is in China. This shows how well- developed China is in its high technology," Yang said.
Cao Qian, 22, a recent university graduate with a degree in electronics and information technology, disagreed with Yang.
"We have a big population. Our scientists are more into theory than practice. We are still behind many other countries -- the United States, Japan, much of Europe. It will be hard for us to catch up," said Cao, who was also in the noodle shop.
China is a latecomer to space exploration compared with Russia and the United States. Chairman Mao Tse-tung is reported to have complained in 1957 that his country couldn't launch a potato into space, much less a rocket.
This was China's third manned space mission and the space culture is developing rapidly. The Chinese have their own word for astronaut, taikonaut -- from the Chinese word for space, taikong.
The country's leaders are hoping that the spacewalk will be followed by the development of a permanent space station by 2020. A manned moon landing might be attempted before that year, which is the target date for NASA's return trip. Such a feat would make them true competitors in a race once dominated by the United States and Russia.