Three Chinese astronauts returned safely to Earth on Sunday after making the country’s first spacewalk, with a hero’s welcome awaiting the men whose exploits captivated the nation.
The descent capsule of the Shenzhou 7 mission was seen on state television drifting gently down under a giant red and white parachute to an empty plain in northern China’s Inner Mongolia region. Cheers erupted at mission control as the capsule touched down around 5:40 pm local time.
Mission commander Zhai Zhigang had etched his name in the history books of this country of 1.3 billion people with a 15-minute walk in space on Saturday that set another milestone in China’s transformation into a global power.
“The mission was glorious and full of challenges but the result was perfect. I feel proud of my country,” Zhai told a television crew that arrived at the touchdown site.
Zhai, 41, was watched on television by countless millions around the globe as his spacewalk vaulted China into ranks of the United States and the former Soviet Union as the only nations to complete a spacewalk.
During the manoeuvre, Zhai had floated outside the module holding the Chinese flag — a moment of great drama and symbolism just days before the 50th anniversary of the US space agency Nasa on Wednesday — which is also China’s National Day.