China reveals space station plan
BEIJING, China (CNN) -- China is celebrating the successful completion of its first manned space flight, looking forward to future launches and revealing plans to put a space station in orbit.
Early Thursday morning astronaut Yang Liwei's Shenzhou V space capsule landed safely in the grasslands of China's Inner Mongolia province.
He said the spacecraft had operated well during the fiery re-entry into Earth's atmosphere, bringing him down just five kilometers (three miles) away from the target landing site.
"I feel very good and I am proud of my motherland," the state-run Xinhua news agency quoted Yang as saying as a crowd of some 600 recovery workers and local residents gathered at the landing site. (Map: Launch and landing sites)
"People were cheering and dancing at the landing site, many of them with tears in their eyes," Xinhua reported.
Less than two hours later, following a quick medical check-up, Yang was aboard a flight to Beijing for a reception with China's leaders and top officials from the space program.
Speaking to reporters en route, Yang said the return trip had been tougher than lift-off, but he added he did not feel nervous "thanks to years of physical and psychological training." (Yang profile)
Yang, whose place in Chinese history books has now been assured, has been lauded as a "space hero" by the head of China's manned space program Li Jinai.
His 21-hour flight completed 14 orbits of the Earth before ground-controllers signaled the craft to begin its descent as it flew above southern Africa.
According to Xinhua, Yang was fit enough after his flight to open the capsule hatch and pull himself out.
Arriving in the Chinese capital late Thursday morning, Yang was set to receive a warm official welcome from China's leaders.
His flight makes China only the third country on Earth to have launched a man into space, some four decades after the former Soviet Union and the United States pioneered the feat.
Celebrating their entry into that exclusive space club, officials from China's space program have been outlining plans for future missions, including spacewalks and space rendezvous.
Speaking to reporters at a Beijing news conference Xie Mingbao, a spokesman for China's space agency said he expected the next Shenzhou spacecraft to blast-off within "one or two years' time." (Shenzhou explainer)
"Our space program has just begun," Xie said, refusing to be drawn on a specific timetable.
His comments came as Xinhua released an interview with Zhang Qingwei, second in command of China's space program, revealing plans to put a space lab and then a space station into orbit. (Next steps)
"The successful mission of Shenzhou V is the first step of China's space program," Zhang was quoted as saying.
With that first step successfully completed Thursday's editions of virtually every Chinese newspaper carried Yang's picture on their front page, emblazoned alongside Chinese flags and images of his spacecraft blasting into space.
The state-run China Daily newspaper mirrored many enthusiastic reports with leading it coverage with the headline "Great Leap Skyward."
Although many details about the military-linked space program have been kept secret, China's leaders are hoping Yang's successful flight will boost national prestige and patriotic fervor.
They are also banking on publicity from an apparently glitch-free flight helping to bolster investor confidence in China's commercial satellite launches.
That confidence took a hammering in the mid-1990s following a series of rocket failures, but observers say Yang's smooth journey should help repair some of that damage.