Chinese astronauts aloft

China carried out a textbook-perfect launch Thursday night with the liftoff of three astronauts into space for the country's third manned spaceflight and first spacewalk.

Underscoring the political implications of the mission, a beaming President Hu Jintao congratulated the astronauts on live television. He called the voyage “another milestone in the Chinese people's march towards aerospace science.”

The mission was a sign of China's growing strategic power and an indication of the importance it gives to space exploration for commercial and military purposes. While NASA officials complain that diminishing budgets threaten U.S. dominance in space, China has joined Europe, India and other nations in announcing ambitious new developments in aerospace.

“After the Olympics, it's the most exciting thing that enhances our national pride and dignity this year,” said He Haihong, 25, a sales manager at an electronics company who founded a Web site for Chinese aerospace fans. “Not only is the rocket launched but also our hopes for a better life.”

Astronaut Zhai Zhigang is scheduled to attempt the spacewalk over the weekend, according to the state-run New China News Agency and CCTV. The spacewalk is aimed at helping China learn how to dock two orbiters to create an orbiting space station over the next few years.

Hours before the launch, the astronauts — three 42-year-old fighter pilots — sat inside the spacecraft, appearing relaxed as they read from a checklist and waved to a TV camera. At the launching station, rows of ground control staff in brown caps led the countdown while the country's top leaders watched. There was a burst of flame, then liftoff and applause.

Officials were so excited that the New China News Agency posted a story online describing the successful launch hours before the astronauts were in orbit.

The smooth takeoff allowed the country to focus on something other than the food scandals and economic troubles that have dominated news this month.

“Although Chinese society has a lot of problems … the launch of Shenzhou VII can improve the confidence of ordinary people because it shows China is getting stronger and stronger,” said library worker Song Liangchun, 43

“I watched the launch on TV, and my heart almost jumped out of my throat when they ejected the rocket. I'm so glad that China is closer to the U.S. and Russia. Our astronaut's steps in space might be small, but it is a big step for us Chinese.”

At the China Aerospace Museum in South Beijing, 500 sixth-graders from the city of Tianjin lined up orderly and quietly, until they saw the three-story models of rockets. Then they scattered in excitement.

“On TV, the rockets don't look so big!” said Chen Lu, a 12-year-old girl. “I worship the astronauts because they can see the whole earth from space.”