China astronauts return to Earth triumphant

In this image taken from NASA TV, astronaut Michael Foreman exits the international space station, Saturday, March 22, 2008. Endeavour's astronauts embarked on the fifth and final spacewalk of their mission Saturday, this time to attach a 50-foot inspection pole to the international space station for use by the next shuttle visitors. (AP Photo/NASA)
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BEIJING, China (CNN) -- Three Chinese astronauts returned to Earth Sunday, completing a three-day mission that included China's first-ever spacewalk.

The three Chinese astronauts salute after they get out of Shenzhou-7 re-entry module.

1 of 3 The Shenzhou-7 re-entry capsule parachuted to a landing on the Inner Mongolia steppe at about 5:39 p.m. (0939 GMT) on Sunday.

A live television broadcast showed the three astronauts sitting in the module, with the hatch opened, re-adapting to gravity for before crawling out about 45 minutes after the landing.

"It was a glorious mission, full of challenges with a successful end," astronaut Zhai Zhigang said on emerging, according to The Associated Press. "We feel proud of the motherland."

China's official news agency, Xinhua, quoted medical officials saying the astronauts were all in good health.

They each walked slowly just a few steps away and sat in chairs as the nation watched on television and applauded.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was among those gathered at mission control in Beijing.

The highlight of the mission came Saturday when Zhai emerged from the hatch of the Shenzhou-7 spaceship for a 13-minute excursion outside.

He first waved his hands to an external camera and later held a small Chinese flag, waving it in space.

The astronaut stayed close to the spacecraft, linked by tethers and always keeping one hand on railings. Watch as astronaut waves Chinese flag in space »

Zhai returned to the interior of his capsule and closed the hatch after about 13 minutes outside.

The three-man crew launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northern China's Inner Mongolia Thursday for a three-day mission, the highlight of which was Saturday's spacewalk.

The spacewalk paves the way for assembling a space station from two Shenzhou orbital modules, the next major goal of China's manned spaceflight program. Watch as China's spacecraft lifts off »

China became the third country to send people into space in 2003, when military pilot Yang Liwei circled the earth for 21 hours.

Its second mission -- in 2005 -- had two crew members and lasted five days.

The latest mission has dominated front pages of China's state-controlled media, knocking aside coverage of China's continuing scandal involving contaminated milk.