The three-person crew of the Shenzhou X completed China's longest manned space mission with a bumpy touchdown yesterday, marking an important milestone for the nation's ambitions.
After disconnecting from the Tiangong-1 space module on Tuesday morning, the Shenzhou X spacecraft dumped its service and propellant modules on schedule, by 7.45am yesterday. The re-entry capsule landed in its target extraction zone in Siziwang Banner, Inner Mongolia , at 8.07am.
The televised landing showed dust kicking up and the parachute dragged the re-entry module across an uneven steppe - leaving a visible track.
The parachute remained attached to the capsule after the landing, although it was supposed to be manually disconnected by an astronaut from inside. Nevertheless, the astronauts looked healthy and happy as they emerged from the capsule 85 minutes later.
Nie Haisheng , commander of the Shenzhou X who was on his second space mission, was the first to emerge, followed by Wang Yaping , the only woman astronaut, and Zhang Xiaoguang .
During a brief welcoming ceremony at the landing area, the astronauts waved to a crowd of military officers, recovery and medical personnel.
Deng Yibing , director of the Chinese Astronaut Research and Training Centre, was quoted by Xinhua as saying that it took longer than usual for the crew to emerge because their 15-day stay in the space was longer than previous missions.
He said they were given medical checks and energy drinks to help them regain their strength before leaving the capsule.
At a press conference in Beijing yesterday, Wang Zhaoyao , director general of the manned space programme office, described the mission as "perfect".
The successful return of the Shenzhou X marked the end of a trial period in Chinese space flight and, in moving forward, scientists and engineers would face enormous challenges over the next seven years in their efforts to build a space laboratory and then a full-scale space station, Wang Zhaoyao said.
He added China would launch the Tiangong-2 for construction of a twin-module space laboratory in 2015. An experimental core module is expected to follow in 2018, and the space station could be finished by 2020, when the International Space Station is due to shut.
Yuan Jie , deputy manager of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp, said the team was researching next-generation rockets with larger carrying capacities.
The Long March 5 carrier rocket would be used in the launching of the manned space station, and the Long March 7 would carry cargo for the station.
Yuan expected the maiden flight for both rockets would be held at a new launch site in Hainan province before 2015.
Despite the fanfare, officials were still trying to allay public doubts on the credibility of information on the astronauts, after rumours a couple of weeks ago about Wang Yaping's age.
At yesterday's press conference, Deng reiterated that she was born in 1980, not 1978. "Their personal information was revealed the day before launch. All previous reports were based on gossip," Deng said.
Wang was not the only astronaut about whom the public raised questions.
Nie weighed 74kg during the flight, but this prompted online discussion, as official information said his weight was 67kg.
Deng said Nie's public profile had not been updated since his last space flight eight years ago.