Astronauts receive heroes' welcome on Beijing return

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 September, 2008, 12:00am

Trio met by families while cheering crowds line the streets

Senior military officials, family members and a hand-picked crowd of onlookers thronged Beijing airport yesterday to welcome the three Shenzhou VII astronauts returning from the country's successful third manned space flight.

The trio - Zhai Zhigang , Liu Boming and Jing Haipeng - flew back to Beijing yesterday from Inner Mongolia , where they spent the night after their landing on Sunday.

They emerged from a plane in blue uniforms at the airport at around 8.30am, waving to the crowd. The astronauts appeared in high spirits, compared with their excited but tired appearance after they emerged from the re-entry module.

Stepping onto the red carpet, Central Military Commission vice-chairman Guo Boxiong and several other top-ranking military officials congratulated the three astronauts.

'You have won great honour for our country and people. We thank you for what you have done for us, and we are all proud of you,' General Guo said.

Colonel Zhai was the main focus of the spotlight on the history-making journey because he made China's first space walk on Saturday

In a rare public display of emotion, the astronauts' wives and children then embraced the newly minted heroes, followed by a group of children who presented flowers to the 'uncle astronauts'.

The three astronauts and their families were driven to the Beijing Aerospace Centre where an ecstatic crowd was waiting.

China Central Television showed the three, with flower garlands around their necks, waving and smiling as they were slowly driven through the streets in open cars in the city's northern suburbs.

With Colonel Zhai's car leading the pack, the fleet rolled slowly along the streets of the centre, where they had been trained, offering the small but excited crowd ample opportunities to wave flags and balloons and cheer on their heroes.

Xinhua reports said the crowd followed the astronauts to their accommodation buildings at the centre and lingered long after the astronauts and their families disappeared from sight.

The three are expected to stay in medical facilities for the next two weeks for a quarantine period. Extensive physical checks and the quarantine were recommended because the astronauts could be vulnerable to some viruses on Earth after spending 68 hours in outer space.

State media said medical checks performed on Sunday showed all three were in excellent health.

Before the three astronauts' return to Beijing, Colonel Liu explained in a CCTV interview on Sunday night why it took several minutes to open the hatch to allow Colonel Zhai to exit for his space walk.

'There was more pressure on the hatch than during our training under water. The pressure was very strong and took Zhai all his strength to open [it]. I told Zhai I would try to open the hatch for him if he failed in the last try, but luckily he managed to do it himself,' Colonel Liu said.

Colonel Jing said he noticed a fire warning while Colonel Zhai was outside the module. 'I just checked all the equipment first as we were trained to do and asked the ground control centre to check it [again] for us,' Colonel Jing said. He said he did not worry about the fire warning because he knew everything would be all right.

Shenzhou VII blasted off at 9.10pm on Thursday from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in Gansu province . The centre also witnessed the launch of China's first manned space mission, Shenzhou V, in 2003 and Shenzhou VI two years later.