China became the third nation to launch a manned flight, 42 years after the same feat was achieved by Russia and the US in 1961. The successful launch of the Shenzhou V craft from a launchpad in the Gobi desert was widely seen as a huge boost to China's international prestige and the first step towards a planned lunar probe, space station and moon landing. Powered by a Long March II F rocket, Shenzhou V carried 38- year-old air force lieutenant-colonel Yang Liwei round the world 14 times in 21 hours before landing safely in Inner Mongolia.
President Hu Jintao, who watch the blastoff at the Jinquan launch centre in Gansu province, hailed the launch as "the glory of our great motherland" and an "historic step" for the Chinese people. Yang, acclaimed as a "warrior" by his president, has become a national hero. Local authorities in Suizhong county in Liaoning province said they wanted to build his childhood home into a museum and to patent 'Yang Liwei' as a brand name for locally produced fruit.
The secrecy surrounding China's 11-year manned space programme had continued up until the last moment, with the government deciding not to go ahead with a live television broadcast. China's entry into the exclusive manned space flight club comes as the future of the US space programme remains in doubt after the loss of the second Columbia space shuttle in February.
China is believed to have spent Yn18bn on its manned space programme, with the Shenzhou V mission costing about Yn1bn. Manufacture of Shenzhou VI, which may carry up to three ' taikonauts' into space, has already begun and may be ready for take-off within a year. After this, the next step would be the construction of a space laboratory similar to those built by the US in the 1970s. Luan Enjie, director of China's aerospace administration was quoted as saying that a moon probe mission was "imminent" and that scientists would soon be building equipment to collect moon data and samples.