BEIJING - Three Chinese astronauts emerged from their capsule Sunday after a milestone mission to carry out the country's first spacewalk, showing off China's technological know-how and cementing its status as a space power and future competitor to the United States.
A senior space official said the mission — China's most ambitious yet — took the country one step closer in its plan to build a space station and then to land a man on the moon.
Wang Zhaoyao, deputy director of manned space flight, said the program is looking to launch a new orbiting vehicle and set up a simple space lab by 2011. There are also hopes of sending unmanned and manned space vehicles to perform docking activities with the target vehicle.
By 2020, China wants to launch a manned mission to experiment with technologies that will enable astronauts to take care of spacecraft for longer periods of time, Wang told reporters at a briefing in Beijing after a parachute brought the astronauts' capsule back to ground.
"After we have successfully completed these three steps, we will go to even more remote areas," Wang said. "We believe that as long as we can make further progress on the road of science and technology, China will achieve the target of putting a manned spacecraft on the moon in the near future."
The United States is the only country to have accomplished that feat, putting its first astronaut team on the moon in 1969. But its last human landing was in 1972, and it has since concentrated on unmanned probes.
China's communist leaders, riding a wave of pride and patriotism after hosting the Olympics, face few of the public doubts or budgetary pressures that have constrained space programs elsewhere. Saturday's spacewalk was watched by cheering crowds on huge outdoor TV screens.
State broadcaster CCTV showed the astronauts' return Sunday after their Shenzhou 7 ship's re-entry vehicle burst through the Earth's atmosphere to make a landing under clear skies in the grasslands of China's northern Inner Mongolia region.
The vessel touched ground at 5:37 p.m. after floating down gently while attached to a giant red-and-white striped parachute, marking the end of the 68-hour endeavor.
"It was a glorious mission, full of challenges with a successful end," said mission commander Zhai Zhigang, a 41-year-old fighter pilot. "We feel proud of the motherland."
Zhai, Liu Boming and Jing Haipeng stayed inside the capsule after landing for about 46 minutes to adapt to Earth's gravity before slowly crawling out the narrow entrance.
Outside, the trio cheerily waved to cameras and reporters from Chinese state media before sitting down in blue fold-out chairs. They saluted as they were presented with bouquets of flowers.
Premier Wen Jiabao applauded at mission control in Beijing and shook hands with staff.
"This mission's success is a milestone; a stride forward," Wen said. "I would like to extend my congratulations to the heroic astronauts who successfully completed this mission."
The premier also reiterated Beijing's longtime stance that it is the Chinese people's "persistent aspiration" to develop space technologies for peaceful exploration.
The spacewalk was a key step in mastering techniques for docking two orbiters to create China's first orbiting space station. Tethered to handles attached to the Shenzhou 7 ship's orbital module, Zhai remained outside for about 13 minutes before climbing back inside.
China has relied heavily on homegrown technology, partly out of necessity. It has trouble obtaining such technology abroad due to U.S. and European bans and is not a participant in the International Space Station.
The Chinese program is backed by the secretive military. While Beijing insists it is committed to a peaceful program, analysts point to numerous potential applications for its technology, such as when it used a land-based missile to blast apart an old satellite last January.
China conducted its first manned space mission, Shenzhou 5, in 2003, becoming only the third country after Russia and the United States to launch a man into space. That was followed by a two-man mission in 2005.