GOBI DESERT, China – China launched its first manned space mission on Wednesday, becoming the third country in history to send a person into orbit -- four decades after the former Soviet Union (search) and the United States.
With a column of smoke, the Shenzhou 5 (search) craft cut across a bright, azure northwest China sky at exactly 9 a.m. Wednesday (9 p.m. EDT Tuesday) and went into orbit 10 minutes later. The official Xinhua News Agency immediately confirmed the launch and said the astronaut was air force Lt. Col. Yang Liwei (search), 38.
"China's first manned spacecraft, the Shenzhou 5, blasted off," Xinhua said. China Central Television's Channel One, the government's flagship station, cut into its programming to announce the launch. The station later showed Shenzhou streaking into the sky and disappearing, its tracer billowing behind it.
Minutes after the launch, a CCTV announcer said that Shenzhou 5 and Yang had "entered orbit at 9:10." Xinhua said Yang was "reading a flight manual in the capsule of the Shenzhou-5 spacecraft and looked composed and at ease."
State media say the manned flight is expected to last about 20 hours.
"I feel good," Yang radioed back from space after a half-hour in flight, according to Xinhua. He told his doctor that his blood pressure and other vital signs were "normal."
Then a bit of cool astronaut bravado: "See you tomorrow."
Li Jinai, chief commander of the country's manned space program, was quoted by Xinhua as saying the spacecraft was operating normally in orbit. Xinhua said three rescue ships that were waiting at sea in case the launch went wrong had been summoned home.
It was the culmination of a decade of efforts by China's military-linked manned space program -- and a patriotism-drenched moment for a communist government more concerned than ever about its profile on the world stage.
The launch makes China the third country to put a human into space on its own. The former Soviet Union sent Yuri Gagarin into orbit in April 1961; the United States launched Alan B. Shepard Jr. less than a month later. John Glenn became the first American in orbit in 1962.
Chinese President Hu Jintao, who watched the launch, called it "the glory of our great motherland."
"The party and the people will never forget those who have set up the outstanding merit in the space industry for the motherland, the people and the nation," Hu said.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration applauded the launch.
"This launch is an important achievement in the history of human exploration," NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said in a statement. "The Chinese people have a long and distinguished history of exploration. NASA wishes China a continued safe human space flight program."
In Washington, Pentagon spokeswoman Cheryl Irwin said, "We wish them success and for their astronaut's safe return."
Referring to China's earlier unmanned space launches, an announcer on the English-language government channel CCTV-9 invoked American astronaut Neil Armstrong's words upon first walking on the moon. "If these were small steps," the announcer said, "then now we are taking a giant leap into space."
Security was tight around the remote Gobi Desert base, some 175 miles northeast of Jiuquan.
On Wednesday morning, the only road to the launch site was crowded with traffic, including military vehicles and civilian tour buses. But private cars were turned back and phone calls to the base were blocked.
China kept details of the event secret, saying in advance only that the launch would take place between Wednesday and Friday and that the astronaut would orbit the Earth 14 times.
The Shenzhou 5 launch came after four test launches of unmanned capsules that orbited the Earth for nearly a week before parachuting back to China's northern grasslands.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue said earlier that the flight was a key step in the "peaceful development of space" -- a reflection of China's effort to reassure the world that its military-linked program is benign.
The Shenzhou, or "Divine Vessel," is based on the three-seat Russian Soyuz capsule, though with extensive modifications. China also paid Moscow to train at least two astronauts.
But Beijing insists everything sent into space will be developed and made in China. State media, trying to dispel suggestions that its triumph depends on foreign know-how, refer to Shenzhou as "China's self-designed manned spaceship."
Xinhua released a picture of Yang, a pilot since 1987 and an astronaut since 1998, boarding Shenzhou 5 about 8 a.m. Wednesday.
"I will not disappoint the motherland. I will complete each movement with total concentration. And I will gain honor for the People's Liberation Army and for the Chinese nation," the popular Chinese Web site Sina.com quoted Yang as saying before taking off.
Yang, who is 5 feet, 6 inches tall and comes from a family of teachers, already was being held up to China's population of 1.3 billion as an instant hero.
He has 1,350 hours of flight experience, the government said. Colleagues describe him as "miraculously dedicated," according to Xinhua.
Yang's clothing in flight consisted of 14 layers that took 15 minutes to don with the help of technicians, the general commander of the astronaut program, Su Shuangning, told Phoenix Television, a Hong Kong broadcaster with close ties to the mainland's military. Yang's space suit cost more than $12 million, Su said.
At midday, Xinhua said Yang had a lunch of diced chicken and rice with dates and nuts, then was to take a nap.
Yang was selected Tuesday from a pool of three finalists. The astronauts have been training for years, and the field of candidates was narrowed from 14 in recent days.
Yang was born in Youzhong County in Liaoning province, an industrial area in China's northeast.
Sina quoted his older sister as saying he was an athletic child who enjoyed swimming and ice skating. He works for the Aviation Military Unit of China's People's Liberation Army, Chinese media said.
After months of official silence, the government showed growing confidence over the past week, splashing pictures of the once-secret launch base across newspapers.
But state television scrapped plans for a live broadcast of the launch, suggesting that leaders were unnerved by the thought of the propaganda disaster that an accident could produce.
China used to broadcast satellite launches live, but stopped in 1995 after a rocket blew up moments after liftoff, reportedly killing six people on the ground.
Xinhua quoted space officials Tuesday assuring the public that the astronauts' space suits were safe and the Long March CZ-2 F booster was China's "best rocket."
The Gansu Daily, published in the provincial capital, Lanzhou, welcomed the imminent launch.
"Finally," it said, "the time has come to realize the 1,000-year dream of flying dreamed by the sons and daughters of China."