BEIJING – A space capsule carrying two Chinese astronauts landed by parachute in the country's northern grasslands before dawn Monday following a five-day mission meant to affirm China's status as an emerging technological power.
The astronauts Fei Junlong (search) and Nie Haisheng (search) were "in good health" after their Shenzhou 6 capsule touched down at 4:32 a.m. local time in the Inner Mongolia region, the official Xinhua News Agency (search) said. It said retrieval crews had reached the landing site and the two men were undergoing a medical checkup.
Fei and Nie blasted off Wednesday on China's second manned space mission. It came almost exactly two years after China's first manned space flight.
China (search) is only the third country to send humans into orbit on its own, after Russia and the United States — a source of tremendous national pride as the communist government tries to cement its status as a rising power and help prepare for a moon landing by 2010 and the eventual creation of a space station. Shenzhou means "divine vessel."
State television showed scores of technicians monitoring the landing at computer screens at a Beijing control center. They showed no reaction when an announcer said the capsule had landed but broke into cheers after word came that the astronauts were safe.
Chinese leaders including Wu Bangguo, the No. 2 figure in the ruling Communist Party, were shown on television watching the landing from the control center.
Late Sunday, Xinhua said the mission had "accomplished the planned experiments and accumulated valuable technical data" for China's manned space program.
"We feel good, our work is going smoothly and our life is happy," Fei was quoted as saying Sunday evening before the craft began its re-entry maneuvers. "We will do our utmost to fulfill the mission."
"We're grateful for the deep love and concern by all Chinese people, the Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan compatriots," Nie said.
Shenzhou 6 orbited the Earth more than 70 times and traveled more than 1.9 million miles, Xinhua said.
The mission was substantially longer and more complex than the 2003 flight, when astronaut Yang Liwei orbited for 211/2 hours before his capsule landed by parachute.
The manned space program is a costly prestige project for China's communist leaders. They hope to burnish the country's standing abroad and shore up their own support at home by stirring patriotic pride at a time of widespread frustration over corruption and a growing gap between the country's rich and poor.
Chinese leaders have defended the program's expense, saying it will help to drive economic and technological development.
The government says the manned space program has cost a total of $2.3 billion — a fraction of the budget of its American counterpart.
The government did not disclose the planned length of the flight in advance or details of the astronauts' mission.
The newspaper Beijing News said Nie and Fei would undergo 40 minutes of medical checkups after landing.
"After several days of flying in space, the astronauts may look wan and sallow, so medical staff will put makeup on them to make them look ruddy," the newspaper said.
The two men were to be taken by helicopter to a local airport to board a flight to Beijing, the report said.
Both will be in isolation for observation for 14 days after the mission, but family members will be allowed to visit, the Beijing Youth Daily newspaper said.
The mission dominated state media last week. In a break with the military-linked space program's usual secrecy, newspapers and television showed scenes of Fei and Nie working and sometimes playing in orbit.
Scenes of Fei turning somersaults and the astronauts setting bits of food floating in zero gravity.
The Beijing Youth Daily featured a photo of them transmitting the digital pictures to the command center. Both were wearing puffy blue jumpsuits and appeared to be squeezed in a small space filled with equipment and a tangle of wires.
CCTV put together a montage set to music of the astronauts' activities on Saturday — taking their blood pressure and reading books — along with photos they had taken of the vessel's solar panels.
The Shenzhou 6 is a modified version of Russia's Soyuz capsule.
China also bought Russian technology for spacesuits, life-support systems and other equipment. But space officials say all of the items launched into orbit were Chinese-made.
On Saturday, President Hu Jintao wished Nie and Fei a "triumphant return" in an exchange shown live on national television.
He added: "The Chinese motherland and the people are proud of you!"