Three Chinese astronauts returned to Earth Thursday (June 28) after 13 days in space on a historic mission that made their country only the third nation ever to successfully dock a manned spacecraft to another in orbit.
China's Shenzhou 9 space capsule landed at about10 p.m. EDT (10 a.m. Friday, June 29 Beijing time) in Inner Mongolia.
"We fulfilled the first manned manual docking," mission commander Jing Haipeng told CCTV reporters after exiting the Shenzhou 9 capsule. [Photos of China's Shenzhou 9 Mission]
Jing and crewmates Liu Yang and Liu Wang appeared to be in good health after their space mission.
Shortly after the landing, China's Premier Wen Jiabao proclaimed the Shenzhou 9 mission a complete success.
"This manned docking mission of Tiangong 1 and Shenzhou 9 marks a large milestone, a major breakthrough for China to master the space docking technology," Wen said "And also, it marks a decisive step forward on China's second step on its space strategy."
China's big space leap
China's Shenzhou 9 mission, which included successful displays of manual and automatic dockings, represented an important leap forward for China's space program. In addition to being China's longest space mission to date, it also tested technology vital for the country's goal of building space station in orbit by the year 2020.
And while the orbital linkups are important technological achievements for China, the mission also carried a wider social impact because it included the country's first female astronaut: the 33-year-old Liu Yang.
China's space station goal
The successful linkups made China only the third country, after the United States and Russia, to accomplish manned dockings in orbit.
The Shenzhou 9 mission, as well as experiments performed aboard Tiangong 1 throughout the flight, tested technologies that will help China fulfill its goal of building a 60-ton space station in orbit by 2020. [How China's Space Station Will Work (Infographic)]
But Chinese officials have outlined an ambitious space program for the nation, which includes collecting samples from the moon and robotically returning them to Earth before landing astronauts on the lunar surface.
The Shenzhou 9 mission is China's fourth manned spaceflight. Previous expeditions were launched in 2003, 2005 and 2008.
"Based on current conditions, the service of Tiangong 1 can be extended," said He Yu, chief commander of the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft, reported Xinhua. "It has consumed less than one-fourth of its fuel and no back-up systems have been used."
"If Tiangong 1 was in perfect shape, it could work side by side with Tiangong 2, which will be launched in the future," He said.