The man who made China’s historic first “footprint in space” is preparing to return to earth on Sunday after a historic mission that boosted national pride and took his country one step closer to the moon.
Zhai Zhigang and two other astronauts on the Shenzhou VII craft are due to land around 5 p.m. (5 a.m. EDT) in northern Inner Mongolia region.
His successful space walk in a $4.4 million, domestically designed, suit caps an eventful year for China in which it has both coped with the tragedy of the devastating Sichuan earthquake and reveled in the Beijing Olympics.
The achievement was hailed by Communist Party leaders as a success for the whole nation and during his twenty minutes outside the craft — but tethered to it to prevent him floating off — the son of a snack-seller unveiled a small Chinese flag.
It was China’s third manned space mission. The ability to “space walk” is key to a longer-term goal of assembling a space lab and then a larger space station, and maybe one distant day making a landing on the moon.
The fast-growing Asian power wants to be sure of a say in the future use of space and its resources, and its space programme has come a long way since late leader Mao Zedong lamented that China could not even launch a potato into space.
Its first manned spaceflight was in 2003, followed by a two-man flight in 2005. The only other countries that have sent people into space are Russia and the United States.
But Xinhua also said that China remained far behind the two leading space powers, Russia and the United States.
It will start selecting new trainee astronauts for an even more demanding mission, orbiter docking, once the Shenzhou VII crew are safely back to earth, Xinhua said.