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Chinese space capsule returns to Earth after ambitious mission

By the CNN Wire Staff
June 29, 2012 -- Updated 0453 GMT (1253 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: The three-person crew emerges from the spacecraft
  • China's Shenzhou-9 capsule bumps down in Inner Mongolia
  • This mission marks China's first woman in space
  • China joins U.S. and Russia in completing a manned space docking

(CNN) -- China's Shenzhou-9 spacecraft returned to Earth on Friday, completing an ambitious mission that notched up a series of breakthroughs for the country, including putting its first woman in orbit.

Shenzhou-9 successfully carried out a manned space docking last week, making China the third country to complete such a feat after the United States and Russia.

Hanging from a parachute, the capsule floated back down to Earth on Friday, bumping down on the arid terrain of Inner Mongolia and rolling onto its side.

Support teams raced on foot and in vehicles to where the capsule lay to coordinate the three-person crew's exit from the spacecraft.

After an hour of preparation work in and around the capsule, the crew members emerged one by one, smiling and waving. They were helped into chairs, as their bodies were still adapting to the earth's gravity after nearly two weeks of weightlessness.

Jing Haipeng came out first to applause from the ground staff. He was followed by Liu Wang. There was then a pause before the female crew member, Liu Yang, made her way out.

The three sat in a row in front of the capsule as Chinese flags rippled in the wind behind them. Still fully dressed in their spacesuits, they joined hands and were each handed a bouquet of flowers.

What does space mission mean for China?

China has made rapid, steady strides in developing its space program over the past decade, such as sending its first astronaut into space, completing its first spacewalk and launching two lunar orbiters. It has big aspirations for the program and hopes to build a space station and conduct a manned mission to the moon.

Chinese space capsule returns to Earth

Shenzhou-9 docked with the orbiting Tiangong-1 space laboratory last week. Tiangong-1, a prototype for a full-fledged space station, was launched into space in September.

China's Shenzhou-9 crew returns to Earth

The crew of Shenzhou-9 followed that feat by executing a manual docking with Tiangong-1 on Sunday.

Mastering the technique of joining spacecraft together manually is considered an crucial step toward China's goal of building a space station in 2020.

Previously, the docking had been done by remote control from the ground.

The endeavors have been a source of pride for China and coincided with the record-setting descent of a Chinese manned submersible vehicle 7,020 meters into the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean.

They could help bolster support for the Chinese Communist Party as it undergoes a once-in-a-decade leadership transition later this year and deal with the fallout from the dramatic downfall of Bo Xilai, one of the country's most prominent politicians.

CNN's Jethro Mullen and Judy Kwon contributed to this report.

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