China's Third Manned Spaceflight Returns Safely to Earth
Chinese astronauts Zhai Zhigang, left waves near Liu Boming, center as Jing Haipeng is assisted out of the Shenzhou re-entry capsule after they landed on the plains of China's northwestern Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, Sunday, Sept 28, 2008.Zhai conducted the country's first-ever spacewalk during the mission.
Credit: AP Photo/Color China Photo.

This story was updated at 7:03 a.m. ET

Shenzhou 7, China?s third manned flight to space, has landed safely on Earth.

The spacecraft?s reentry module touched down on the grasslands of Inner Mongolia Sunday at 5:38 a.m. ET (0938 GMT), concluding a roughly 68-hour mission. The three astronauts onboard, Zhai Zhigang, Liu Boming and Jing Haipeng, are reportedly in good health.

Before beginning the return trip, the crew moved into their Shenzhou 7 spacecraft?s reentry module, and jettisoned the orbital and service modules. After the reentry module entered Earth's atmosphere, it released a giant parachute to soften the landing.

The weather in Mongolia was favorable, with a slightly cloudy sky and low winds. Helicopters and search and rescue teams were stationed in the area to meet the returning astronauts.

Once the hatch was opened, the astronauts smiled, waved and gave thumbs up signals to the crowd on the ground. They were able to walk after being helped from the capsule by rescue crews, and were each given a bouquet of flowers. The landing, egress and welcome ceremony were broadcast live on official state China Central Television.

"It was a glorious mission, full of challenges with a successful end," Zhai said after landing, the Associated Press reported. "We feel proud of the motherland."

The crew will be taken to a hospital in the Inner Mongolian capital Hohhot for medical examination and is scheduled to fly back to Beijing on Monday. The astronauts will have to spend about two weeks in quarantine before meeting their families, state news agency Xinhua reported.

A step forward

The momentous Shenzhou 7 flight, which launched Sept. 25, included China?s first ever spacewalk, performed by Zhai Saturday and broadcast live. During the 20-minute sojourn, Zhai, sporting a new Chinese-built spacesuit, collected a test sample of solid lubricant from the outside of the spacecraft that had been placed there before launch. Afterward, Zhai and crewmates released a small satellite to capture images and send them back to Earth.

The spacewalk was an important step in the evolution of China?s manned space program. The nation is the only country, besides the United States and Russia, capable of independently launching astronauts into space and, now, conducting spacewalks.

Though the latter two countries achieved these feats about 40 years ago, China's accomplishment is nonetheless noteworthy, experts say.

?On the one hand, yes, they are doing things that we and the Soviets did in the 1960s, so is this a huge step forward in terms of basic science? No,? said Dean Cheng, China analyst with Alexandria, Va.-based think tank CNA Corp. ?On the other hand, just because your parents learned how to drive does not make your getting your license any less significant for you. The Chinese are only the third nation to put their own person atop their own launcher in their own spacecraft.?

Another space race?

The Shenzhou 7 mission follows China?s second manned flight, the five-day, two-manned Shenzhou 6, in October 2005. The country?s first mission, Shenzhou 5, launched astronaut Yang Liwei into Earth orbit in October 2003.

Some predict Chinese missions may start to ramp up in frequency, if the nation hopes to eventually rendezvous and dock two spacecraft in orbit, and build a space laboratory.

?The launches should be starting to be closer together,? said Joan Johnson-Freese, an expert on the Chinese space program at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island. ?If they want to do the docking they?re going to have to do two missions close together.?

Though the Chinese don?t seem to be in too much of a rush, some experts say they have initiated a space race with the United States, with the ultimate goal again being to land on the moon.

?I do think it sets up the perception of a space race, but this race, if there is one, is of political will,? Johnson-Freese told ?This is the classic tortoise and the hare situation. We just don?t seem to have the political will to be doing what they?re doing.?