China Launches Manned Spacecraft
BEIJING (Reuters) - China put its first man in space yesterday, sending a single astronaut on a 21hour odyssey around the Earth four decades after the Soviet Union and the United States pioneered manned space flight.
The Long March 2F rocket carrying "taikonaut" Yang Liwei lifted off into a clear blue sky over the Gobi desert at 9 a.m. and entered its predetermined orbit 10 minutes later.
Official media quickly declared the launch a success.
"I feel good and my conditions are normal," Yang said from space as the Shenzhou V, or "Divine Ship V," was making its first circuit around the Earth.
Yang, 38, is part of an historic mission which, if successful, will make China just the third nation to put a man into space and bring him back to Earth - over 40 years behind the former Soviet Union and the United States.
At the Jiuquan Space Centre in Inner Mongolia onlookers clapped and cheered as the Shenzhou V lifted off.
A thousand miles (1,600 km) away in the capital, pride mixed with relief as state television broadcast delayed pictures of the launch.
Shenzhou V gave a boost to the leaders of the world's most populous nation. President Hu Jintao, who witnessed the lift-off, spoke of the "glory of our great motherland".
"We look forward to your triumphant return," Hu said.
The launch 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.
"It is a show of muscle, a show of power to the region," said Tai Hui, an economist with Standard Chartered in Hong Kong, playing down the economic significance.
Earlier Yang, decked out in his space suit, headed for the launch past rows of beaming, balloon-carrying children who had come to see him off. Once in the capsule he reviewed a flight manual and appeared "composed and at ease", Xinhua said.
In the United States, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe described the launch as an important achievement.
"The Chinese people have a long and distinguished history of exploration," he said in a statement. "NASA wishes China a continued safe human space flight programme."
Japan added its praise. "We want to offer our congratulations for the success from the bottom of our heart," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda said.
Yang, who follows a trail blazed by Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin and American astronaut Alan Shepard in 1961, was due to orbit the Earth 14 times and touch down in Inner Mongolia at 6 a.m. on Thursday, Xinhua said.
In the afternoon, the spaceship successfully shifted from its initial elliptical orbit to a circular orbit 343 km (213 miles) from Earth, an essential step for an accurate landing, Xinhua said.
Yang, a lieutenant-colonel in the People's Liberation Army, was chosen from a pool of 14 as the country's first taikonaut - from the Chinese word for space. Yang is the son of a teacher and an official at an agricultural firm and was raised in the northeast "rustbelt" province of Liaoning.
"We are proud of him," his brother-in-law told Reuters just minutes before the launch. "We don't worry about his safety because we trust the nation's advanced technology."
Yang was to dine on specially designed packets of shredded pork with garlic and "eight treasure" rice, washed down with Chinese herbal tea, state media said. …