Three Chinese astronauts emerged from their capsule Sunday after a milestone mission to carry out the country's first spacewalk, showing off China's technological know-how and cementing its status as a space power and future competitor to the United States.
A senior space official said the mission – China's most ambitious yet – took the country one step closer in its plan to build a space station and then to land a man on the moon.
Wang Zhaoyao, deputy director of manned space flight, said the program is looking to launch a new orbiting vehicle and set up a simple space lab by 2011. There are also hopes of sending unmanned and manned space vehicles to perform docking activities with the target vehicle.
By 2020, China wants to launch a manned mission to experiment with technologies that will enable astronauts to take care of spacecraft for longer periods of time, Wang told reporters at a briefing in Beijing after a parachute brought the astronauts' capsule back to ground.
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“After we have successfully completed these three steps, we will go to even more remote areas,” Wang said. “We believe that as long as we can make further progress on the road of science and technology, China will achieve the target of putting a manned spacecraft on the moon in the near future.”
The United States is the only country to have accomplished that feat, putting its first astronaut team on the moon in 1969. But its last human landing was in 1972, and it has since concentrated on unmanned probes.
“It was a glorious mission, full of challenges with a successful end,” said mission commander Zhai Zhigang, a 41-year-old fighter pilot. “We feel proud of the motherland.”
Premier Wen Jiabao applauded at mission control in Beijing and shook hands with staff.
“This mission's success is a milestone; a stride forward,” Wen said.
Wen also reiterated Beijing's longtime stance that it is the Chinese people's “persistent aspiration” to develop space technologies for peaceful exploration.
The spacewalk was a key step in mastering techniques for docking two orbiters to create China's first orbiting space station. Tethered to handles attached to the Shenzhou 7 ship's orbital module, Zhai remained outside for about 13 minutes before climbing back inside.
China has relied heavily on homegrown technology out of necessity. It has trouble obtaining such technology abroad due to U.S. and European bans and is not a participant in the International Space Station.