JIUQUAN, China -- China's first astronaut in space returned safely to earth yesterday when his craft touched down on time and as planned after 21 hours in orbit, the government said. China's mission control declared the country's landmark debut flight a success.
The craft carrying Yang Liwei landed on the grasslands of Inner Mongolia in northern China as planned at dawn, the official Xinhua News Agency said. Minutes later, he emerged from the capsule and waved at rescuers, according to images broadcast by state television.
The government said Yang's condition was good, and the website Sina.com said he would undergo an immediate physical exam. The landing came after a 21-hour mission in which Shenzhou 5 orbited the Earth 14 times. Though the government has been very secretive about its space program, it offered frequent glimpses of Yang throughout the trip and repeatedly said everything was going fine.
While in orbit, Yang spoke to his family, telling them it looked "splendid" in space. He also had a conversation with the country's defense minister, unfurled the flags of China and the United Nations, and took a nap.
Helicopters and trucks rushed to retrieve Yang. Earlier reports said the astronaut would be armed with knives and possibly a gun to protect himself against wild animals and other threats in the Inner Mongolian grasslands.
Yang, an astronaut since 1998, was picked for the flight from three finalists. They have trained for years, and the field was narrowed from 14 in recent weeks. His trip came after four test flights, beginning in 1999, of unmanned Shenzhou capsules.
The completion of the mission was the crowning achievement of an 11-year, military-linked manned space program promoted as a symbol of national prestige.
China has had a rocketry program since the 1950s. It launched a manned space program in the 1970s amid the political upheaval of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution but abandoned it.
The program was relaunched in 1992.
The budget for the program is secret, but foreign experts say it totals at least $1 billion -- a major commitment for China, where the average person makes $700 a year.
The Shenzhou, or "Divine Vessel," is based on the three-seat Russian Soyuz capsule, with extensive modifications.