September 29, 2008

Chinese Astronauts Touch Down After Space Walk

By Emma Graham-Harrison

Three Chinese astronauts have returned to Earth after a 68-hour voyage and a space walk that the country's leaders hailed as a major technological achievement. Their Shenzhou VII ("Sacred vessel") spacecraft parachuted down to the steppes of northern Inner Mongolia at dusk. Doctors rushed to open the capsule and check the men as they readjusted to gravity and recovered from the punishing re- entry.

Zhai Zhigang, who walked in space, was the first to emerge and was greeted with flowers and applause. He was helped to a nearby folding chair, where he said he was "proud of his motherland". Wen Jiabao, the Prime Minister, told the nation minutes later that the spacemen were heroes for their efforts, which made China one of only three nations to have managed a space walk. "The complete success of the manned Shenzhou VII is a great stride forward for China's space technology," he said, adding that the country's efforts were focused only on science.

China's rapidly advancing programme has raised disquiet among Western governments and in Japan that it may have military ambitions in space, especially after conducting an anti-satellite missile test last year.

Mr Zhai's brief outing in a Chinese-designed space suit that cost 2.4m capped a year in which the country has both coped with the tragedy of the devastating Sichuan earthquake and revelled in the Beijing Olympics.

The ability to conduct a 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.


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