Hong Kong (CNN) -- Three Chinese astronauts have returned safely to Earth after completing their country's longest manned space voyage, with their mission hailed by their bosses as a "complete success."
Nie Haisheng, commander of the Shenzhou-10 crew, was the first to emerge from the descent module after it touched down by parachute in an expanse of Inner Mongolian grasslands on Wednesday morning after 15 days in space. He was followed by Wang Yaping, the only female astronaut of the mission, and Zhang Xiaoguang.
"We are dreamers, and we have now fulfilled our dream," Zhang was quoted as saying by the state media China Daily as saying. "Our space dream knows no boundary, and our hard work will never cease."
Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, watching a broadcast of the descent from the Beijing Aerospace Command and Control Center, congratulated the astronauts on behalf of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China.
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China unveils new space mission During its journey, Shenzhou-10, whose name translates as "Divine Vessel," twice docked with the orbiting space station Tiangong-1 ("Heavenly Palace"), once manually and once through an automated operation. The crew spent 12 days aboard the space station, conducting technical tests and medical experiments, while Wang delivered a physics lesson in zero-gravity via video link to more than 60 million Chinese middle school students.
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Tiangong-1 was launched in September 2011 with a two-year operational lifespan. The Shenzhou-10's mission was the second and final manned voyage to the space station, following China's first manned docking mission a year ago. It represented China's fifth manned mission to space in a decade, and the first during the presidency of Xi Jinping, who took office in March this year.
The mission has been broadly hailed by Chinese leaders and citizens alike as a prestige-building demonstration of China's growing technological expertise, although some netizens have questioned the wisdom of a developing country pursuing an expensive space program.
During a June 24 video call to the Shenzhou-10 crew, Xi told them that "the space dream is part of the dream to make China stronger. With the development of space programs, the Chinese people will take bigger strides to explore further in space," he said, according to state media.
The Shenzhou-10 mission -- hailed by Zhang Youxia, commander-in-chief of China's manned space program, as a "complete success" -- is part of Beijing's ambitious multi-billion dollar program to establish a manned space station by 2020.
China only sent its first astronaut into space in 2003, but has made rapid advances in the intervening decade. Despite this, its space program is still yet to achieve capabilities reached by the U.S. and then the Soviet Union decades ago.
China does not expect to put a man on the moon until after 2020, but plans to send a more advanced space lab, Tiangong-2, into orbit in 2015.