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China's landmark space walk mission concludes successfully

BEIJING (PTI): Three astronauts who undertook China's maiden space walk returned to Earth today with Premier Wen Jiabao declaring the feat as a "monumental achievement" for the nation's ambitious military-managed space programme.

The Shenzhou-7 space module carrying the three astronauts landed safely by parachute in northern China's Inner Mongolia grassland.

Astronauts Zhai Zhigang, Liu Boming, and Jing Haipeng returned from a 68-hour flight, which included a 20-minute space walk yesterday.

"It was a glorious mission, full of challenges with a perfect result. I'm proud of my country," said a beaming Zhai, China's first-ever space-walker, after emerging from the module.

"Before I took off, I told you the Chinese taikonauts are the best. Thank the motherland and the people," Liu was quoted as saying by the state-run Xinhua news agency.

Jing said, "we could felt the care of the country and people while in the abysmal space. Now we have safely returned." Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who was at the Beijing ground control centre to watch the landing, declared that the mission was "a victory of the Chinese space and technological field and a monumental achievement in the Socialist causes".

"Your historical feat will be remembered by the country and the people," Wen said, delivering a congratulatory note from the Chinese leadership.

The three taikonauts (as astronauts are known in China) were examined by doctors and adapted themselves to the gravitation on the Earth before exiting the module.

They will be taken to a hospital in Hohhot, the regional capital for medical examination and are scheduled to fly back to Beijing tomorrow for a two-week quarantine. The three astronauts, all aged 42, blasted off on Thursday on the country's third space crusade. China put a lone astronaut, Yang Liwei in space in 2003, and sent two men, Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng, on a five-day journey in 2005.

The successful space walk mission makes China the third country to master the extravehicular activity (EVA) technology following the United States and Russia.

During the space walk on Saturday, Zhai wore a hulking 4-million-U.S. Dollar homemade space suit and spent 20 minutes outside the spacecraft. Tethered to the craft with two safety wires and a long electric cord providing oxygen and communications, he moved slowly along a set of handrails around the orbiter.

Zhai also retrieved a test sample of solid lubricant placed outside the orbiter, as part of an experiment to test the durability of the materials.

After the space walk, Chinese President Hu Jintao, who watched live transmission of the space walk from the Beijing control centre, congratulated him.

Hu hailed the space walk as a breakthrough and thanked the taikonauts for their devotion and excellent performance.

Other tasks of the mission included carrying out trials of satellite data relay and releasing a 40-kg companion satellite, which was left in the space with the orbital module and the extravehicular space suits.

The live telecast of the historic moment was watched by tens of millions of Chinese and met with applauses and cheers by crowds before downtown outdoor screens and office television sets.

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