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China's taikonauts make a triumphant return to earth
Publication Date : 30-06-2012
China's first female taikonaut Liu Yang returned to earth to a heroine's welcome - and a meal of salted vegetables and stewed mutton.
The landing of the capsule carrying Liu, 33, and two other taikonauts on the Inner Mongolia grasslands yesterday brought an end to China's most ambitious outing so far, one which takes it a step closer to having its own space station by 2020.
But China quickly said it did not see its space missions as intended to compete with other nations.
Liu, together with her space colleagues Jing Haipeng, 45, and Liu Wang, 43, notched up many milestones during a 13-day mission - the longest to date - that began on June 16.
One breakthrough was for the Shenzhou IX vessel they were in to carry out, for the first time, manual docking with the Tiangong I module in space. This was automated previously.
Mastering such a move would help the Chinese build their own station in the Milky Way later.
China said it has spent about 39 billion yuan (US$6.17 billion) on its manned space schemes since they began in 1992.
Its progress comes at a time when Washington is cutting back on space exploration.
But Wang Zhaoyao, director-general of China's manned space agency, insisted that China was not out to rival anyone.
"We're not thinking of overtaking any country, or competing with anyone," he said yesterday.
But he also noted that space prowess influences the world order and is something a country of stature cannot do without.
In 2003, China became the third country after the United States and Russia to send a man to space. It will also become only the third to launch its own space station if it succeeds in doing so. There are concerns a Chinese station might be the only one in orbit by 2020, when an international base is slated to be retired.
Wang promised that China would be open to working with others to advance space exploration. There could be joint experiments in the station, he said.
As part of preparations for the station, close tabs were kept on the health of the taikonauts while they were in space.
The trio smiled and waved as they were helped to folding chairs on the grasslands to say a few words before live cameras.
"Tiangong is our home in space. It's warm and cosy. We're proud of our motherland," said Liu.
She is likely to blaze the way for other women, said Chen Shanguang, director of China Astronaut Research and Training Center. "I believe more and more female compatriots will join the ranks of our space projects."