Shenzhou IX's re-entry capsule undershot its touchdown target yesterday morning, landing in uneven terrain that the ground-rescue team took some time to reach, but the astronauts emerged healthy and smiling after their successful mission.
They landed in Inner Mongolia's Siziwang region, 'a bit west' of the designated landing zone, according to three space experts on a live broadcast by China Central Television.
Unlike previous flights that landed on flat ground, the crew found the re-entry capsule descending towards terrain with low hills, small basins and a dried up creek. Had they landed on a ridge, the capsule could have rolled a long way down, jolting the astronauts and damaging sensitive equipment, the experts had warned.
However, the capsule landed in the centre of a basin, its soft-landing rockets firing seconds before touchdown, and the capsule barely rolled before coming to a stop.
It took the three astronauts more than an hour to re-adapt to gravity. Only when they could stand up for at least half a minute by themselves did they crawl out of the capsule, with broad smiles. They were lifted onto chairs to receive flowers and greetings from ground personnel.
Senior Colonel Jing Haipeng , Shenzhou IX's commander, said they had completed the mission objectives with 'all-round success', while Senior Colonel Liu Wang was glad it was over.
'It feels great to touch solid ground again,' Jing said. 'It feels great to be home.'
Major Liu Yang, China's first woman astronaut, said she had already begun to miss space.
'Tiangong [China's orbiting space laboratory] is our home in space,' she said. 'It is very cosy, very comfortable.'
The other crew members also set records, with Liu Wang becoming the first Chinese astronaut to fully control a spacecraft in a manual docking, and Jing the first to venture into space twice. His last mission was aboard Shenzhou VII in 2008.
The Tiangong I laboratory module provided enough room to conduct important experiments.
China plans to finish the construction of a full-scale space laboratory, weighting 60 tonnes, by about 2020, and scientists and engineers were keen to get scientific data collected by the crew as they lived and worked in the module. Scientists are working on the design of a space station where astronauts will be able to live for up to six months.
Liu Yang collected her crewmates' brainwave activity while they were working or having a rest and the crew also discussed the pros and cons of Tiangong's life-support facilities and interior-design features such as the sleeping chamber, fitness bikes and online entertainment system.
Wang Zhaoyao , director of China's manned space programme office, told Xinhua that China was not in a race with other countries in space.
'We are not aiming to catch up with and surpass other countries, nor to compete with anybody else. We just develop the programme based on our own needs,' he said.