Shenzhou spacecraft lands safely after three-day flight
BY STEPHEN CLARK
Posted: September 28, 2008
Three astronauts strapped inside the Shenzhou 7 capsule plummeted through the atmosphere and parachuted to a pinpoint landing in northern China Sunday to complete a three-day mission that included the country's first spacewalk.
The cramped entry module, stuffed with three astronauts strapped to cushioned seats, touched down at the landing zone in Inner Mongolia a few seconds before 0938 GMT (5:38 a.m. EDT), or shortly before sunset Chinese time.
"Welcome home, Shenzhou 7," an official in Beijing mission control radioed to the crew after landing.
Teams of medical personnel and rescue workers quickly arrived at the landing site in helicopters and cars. Technicians and the crew opened the hatch about 10 minutes after landing to allow doctors to begin examining the astronauts.
Commander Zhai Zhigang and astronauts Liu Boming and Jing Haipeng emerged from the capsule about 45 minutes after landing. The crew was seated in chairs near the capsule and presented bouquets of flowers before giving brief interviews to state television.
"Yesterday, Chinese astronauts did China's first ever EVA," Zhai said through a translator. "This whole mission was full of challenges and it was successfully completed."
The astronauts are expected to return to Beijing by Monday.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited the Beijing control center during landing. President Hu Jintao witnessed the mission's launch and was in the control center for the spacewalk.
Wen delivered an official statement to the ground team from the Chinese government.
"China has become the third country in the world to send men into spacewalk and capture this great technology," Wen said through a translator. "It is of great significance to strengthen our economic power, our national defense and the strength of our country."
The statement also expressed continued support for the Chinese space program.
"Your country will always remember this great achievement," Wen said. "The manned space mission and the peaceful exploration of space have a long way ahead."
The crew closed the hatch between the orbital module, a habitation compartment at the forward end of the ship, and the entry module a few hours before landing. The orbital module, which will remain in orbit, was jettisoned from the entry and propulsion units at about 0848 GMT (4:48 a.m. EDT).
Thrusters aboard the propulsion module fired at about 0900 GMT (5 a.m. EDT) to slow the ship's velocity enough for Shenzhou 7 to drop from orbit and re-enter the atmosphere.
Pyrotechnics fired again at 0913 GMT (5:13 a.m. EDT) to separate the entry and propulsion modules.
A camera outside the propulsion module captured video of the separation of the orbital and entry modules. The footage was replayed on China Central Television after landing.
The capsule moved in range of cameras stationed near the landing site after an expected four-minute communications blackout due to extreme heating. Live video showing the craft hanging from the landing parachute appeared on CCTV at about 0925 GMT (5:25 a.m. EDT).
The successful return of Shenzhou 7 punctuated a mission lasting nearly three days - more than 68 hours - that centered on the first spacewalk in China's emergent space program.
Zhai and Liu put on spacesuits Saturday and depressurized the ship's orbital module in a dramatic 14-minute excursion outside the spacecraft. Zhai fully exited the module and attached himself to handrails bolted to the ship's exterior.
Liu floated halfway through the module to hand Zhai a Chinese flag and help retrieve an experiment package mounted outside the hatch.
Zhai wore a new Chinese Feitian spacesuit and Liu donned an Orlan spacesuit that China purchased from Russia.
Jing remained in the entry module to monitor the spacewalk in a shirt sleeve environment.
Shenzhou 7 blasted off at 1310 GMT (9:10 a.m. EDT) Thursday from the Jiuquan launch base in northwestern China.
The next Shenzhou mission is reportedly scheduled to launch in 2010 to begin the assembly of a space laboratory. Shenzhou 8 will be the unmanned keystone of the space station, while Shenzhou 9 will launch with a cache of cargo and supplies to deliver to the lab.
The next piloted mission planned by China is expected to be Shenzhou 10, which will dock with the complex to conduct a series of experiments and tests. That crew could also launch in 2010, according to Chinese news reports.
The space lab program will require the Chinese to master rendezvous and docking in orbit, the next critical step in the country's space program.