Three Chinese astronauts landed safely in the
remote Inner Mongolia region early Wednesday to complete a key stage
in the nation's quest to erect a permanent space station around 2020.
State television showed the final descent of the re-entry capsule of the Shenzhou-10 spacecraft slowed by parachute before it landed on grassland after 15 days in space.
Astronauts Nie Haishang, Zhang Xiaoguang and Wang Yaping were all in good health, mission controllers said.
Zhang Youxia, the commander-in-chief of China's manned space programme, declared the mission a success, while Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli congratulated the Shenzhou-10 team on behalf of the ruling Communist Party.
The mission was of "great significance" for boosting China's economic and technological power, and showing the country's strength, state media quoted Zhang as saying.
"It's as good as anyone could expect," Australian space analyst Morris Jones said of the mission.
"The highlight was the science lesson for schoolchildren, which shows that weightlessness is an almost magical environment," Jones told dpa, referring to a physics lesson from the astronauts while they were in the Tiangong-1 capsule.
Wang, 33, China's second woman in space, said she had fulfilled two childhood dreams on the mission.
"One is the space dream and the other is a dream to be a teacher, and this time I have become a teacher lecturing in space," she said after leaving the space capsule on Wednesday.
In 2003, China became the third nation to launch an astronaut into space, after Russia and the United States.
Shenzhou-10 was China's fifth and longest scheduled manned space mission. It included automatic and manual docking manoeuvres and a series of scientific experiments inside the Tiangong-1 orbital capsule.
The mission continued the near-perfect progress of China's military-run space programme towards its goal of assembling a permanent space station.
"The biggest challenge will be perfecting the heavy-lift rocket that will be needed to lift the modules for the space station," Jones said.
China is developing a new generation of carrier rockets and a fourth launch centre on the southern island of Hainan, where construction started in 2009.
The Hainan centre is earmarked to launch the new Long March rockets that will carry heavy payloads of up to 25 tons for the space station.
"Having larger payloads means that you can assemble [the space station] from fewer components, ie, larger modules, and also have to engage in fewer spacewalks to do it," said Dean Cheng, a China specialist at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think-tank.
Reported difficulties in perfecting the wider 5-metre diameter of the new Long March-5 carrier rockets have delayed the expected launch until 2015, Cheng said, adding that he still expected China to stick to its schedule for the space station.
"I would expect the Chinese to do everything in their power to build at least part of the station by 2020," Cheng said.
China has also launched two lunar probes in its separate Chang'e programme, which is named after a Chinese moon goddess.
Scientists are preparing a lunar rover for the country's first unmanned moon landing, scheduled for later this year, to be followed around 2017 by another rover capable of returning to Earth with mineral samples.
"This is almost as technically complex as the human spaceflight programme," Jones said of the lunar rover landing.
"China has never landed anything on the moon before," he said. "It's another major first step for them."
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