Chinese Astronauts Prepare For Landing
Zhai Zhigang waves the flag of the People's Republic of China from space, as his crewmate, Liu Boming, peeks his head out of the hatch.
Credit: CCTV/Xinhua

With a successful spacewalk behind them, Chinese astronauts are preparing to return home to Earth Sunday.

Zhai Zhigang, Liu Boming and Jing Haipeng, the three crewmembers of the Shenzhou 7 mission, China?s third manned spaceflight, are set to land Sunday at about 5:00 a.m. ET (0900 GMT). They are slated to land on the grassy plains of Inner Mongolia aboard their craft?s reentry module, which is based on the Russian-built Soyuz spacecraft?s reentry module.

After launching Thursday atop a Long March 2F rocket from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in China's Gansu province, the Chinese astronauts, or taikonauts, accomplished a major milestone in completing their country?s first spacewalk.

The roughly 20-minute excursion took Zhai outside the craft to retrieve a science experiment from the vehicle?s surface, with Liu assisting and coming part-way out of the hatch to hand Zhai supplies.

The spacewalk demonstrated the capabilities of China?s astronauts, as well as the nation?s technological prowess, especially through the successful performance of a new, Chinese-built spacesuit. The activity was broadcast live, signaling China?s increasing willingness to be open with the public and press, as well as strong confidence in its ability to complete the maneuver safely.

"Your success represents a new breakthrough in our manned space program," said Chinese president and Communist Party leader Hu Jintao after the spacewalk, according to the Associated Press. "The motherland and the people thank you."

With the mission?s biggest hurdle behind them, the taikonauts are spending the rest of their roughly 68-hour journey in space preparing for the return trip. Meals aboard the ship have included typical Chinese fare such as kung pao chicken, shrimp and dried fruit, the official state Xinhua news agency reported.

Overall, the mission so far has been smooth for China, with no major reported glitches, and a safe and successful spacewalk completed.

?This sends the message that China is a space power of the first order,? Dean Cheng, China analyst with Alexandria, Va.-based think tank CNA Corp., told ?They have the ability to do all sorts of things in space ? put people up, and if necessary, shoot down things,? he said, referring to China?s destruction of one of its own satellites with a missile in January 2007.

The Shenzhou 7 mission is a step toward China?s larger goals of establishing a manned space laboratory, and perhaps eventually landing a person on the moon. The nation is the third country, after Russia and the United States, to independently launch astronauts into space.