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China lauds flight triumph, envisions a space station

BEIJING -- A triumphant China celebrated its first space traveler's safe return yesterday by announcing ambitious new goals: another flight within two years and a space station.

The announcement came as state television repeatedly broadcast scenes of Lieutenant Colonel Yang Liwei climbing from his Shenzhou 5 capsule and waving to cheering rescue workers after landing at dawn in northern China. Doctors declared Yang in good shape, and mission control called his 21 1/2-hour flight a success.

The landing clinched China's bragging rights as the third member of the elite club of spacefaring nations -- a prize that communist leaders spent 11 years and $2.2 billion orchestrating.

"We certainly believe this achievement will further inspire . . . greater patriotic fervor," said Xie Mingbao, the Chinese manned space program's chief engineer.

Emboldened by success, program officials talked openly for the first time about China's further plans in space, confirming suggestions that Beijing wants a long-term presence there.

The next Shenzhou flight should take place "within one or two years," Xie said at a news conference. He said that after a series of flights to master spacewalking and docking, China planned to launch a space lab that could support a crew for limited periods.

"The third step is to develop a space station," he said.

He said China has no plans for a space shuttle like those of the United States, and will rely instead on the Shenzhou to service its orbital station.

Space officials gave no timeline for launching the space station. "We are not actually planning to catch up with the [former Russian] Mir space station or the International Space Station at this moment," Xie said.

The comments were a startling break from the reflexive secrecy of the military-linked program. The government canceled a live telecast of the launch and didn't disclose Yang's name until he was racing toward orbit Wednesday from a Gobi Desert launch base.

Immediately following his landing yesterday, Yang was flown to Beijing, where state television showed him, dressed in a cobalt-blue jumpsuit, descending the aircraft stairs on a red carpet and saluting Defense Minister Cao Gangchuan.

"To fulfill the 1,000-year-old dream of the Chinese nation to fly in space is a sacred mission," Yang said before the launch in comments released for the first time yesterday by the official Xinhua News Agency. "We are lucky to assume this task and feel greatly honored."

Thousands of people gathered at the capital's Millennium Monument to celebrate. There was no indication when China's newest hero would appear in public.

The budget for the manned space program has long been secret, but Xie said yesterday it has cost $2.2 billion so far -- a major commitment for China, where the average person makes $700 a year.

Yang's successful flight came four decades after the former Soviet Union and the United States pioneered human spaceflight. Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited Earth in April 1961. The next month the United States launched Alan B. Shepard Jr.

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