Image: Chinese astronauts' welcoming parade
AFP - Getty Images
Chinese astronauts Zhai Zhigang (center), Liu Boming (right) and Jing Haipeng wave during a welcoming parade at the space program headquarters in Beijing on Monday.  Zhai, the first Chinese man to walk in space, was hailed as a national hero.
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updated 9/29/2008 6:46:38 PM ET 2008-09-29T22:46:38

Three Chinese astronauts arrived Monday in Beijing to a homecoming parade after completing China’s first spacewalk and putting the country closer to building a space station and landing a man on the moon.

State broadcaster CCTV showed the three, with flower garlands around their necks, waving and smiling as they were slowly driven through the streets at Beijing Aerospace Center, where they did their space training.

Holding up Chinese flags and balloons, hundreds of people, many of them uniformed soldiers, cheered and applauded as the astronauts went by, with some shouting out, “Learn from the astronauts and salute the astronauts.”

One banner read: “Warmly celebrate the great success of the task of the Shenzhou manned spaceflight.”

The success of the mission now shifts the focus to building the space station and plans to land a man on the moon, said Wang Zhaoyao, deputy director of manned space flight.

He said the program is looking to launch a new orbiting vehicle and set up a simple space lab by 2011. There are also hopes of sending unmanned and manned space vehicles to perform docking activities with the target vehicle.

By 2020, China wants to launch a manned mission to experiment with technologies that will enable astronauts to take care of spacecraft for longer periods of time, Wang told reporters at a briefing in Beijing after a parachute brought the astronauts’ capsule back to ground Sunday.

“After we have successfully completed these three steps, we will go to even more remote areas,” Wang said, adding China hopes to send a manned mission to the moon “in the near future.”

Video: A big step for China's space program

The United States is the only country to have accomplished that feat, putting its first astronaut team on the moon in 1969. But its last human landing was in 1972, and it has since concentrated on unmanned probes.

China’s communist leaders, riding a wave of pride and patriotism after hosting the Olympics, face few of the public doubts or budgetary pressures that have constrained space programs elsewhere. Saturday’s spacewalk was watched by cheering crowds on huge outdoor TV screens.

State broadcaster CCTV showed the astronauts’ return Sunday after their Shenzhou 7 ship’s re-entry vehicle burst through the Earth’s atmosphere to make a landing under clear skies in the grasslands of China’s northern Inner Mongolia region. The vessel floated down gently while attached to a giant red-and-white striped parachute, marking the end of the 68-hour endeavor.

“It was a glorious mission, full of challenges with a successful end,” said mission commander Zhai Zhigang, a fighter pilot. “We feel proud of the motherland.”

Premier Wen Jiabao applauded at mission control in Beijing and shook hands with staff.

“This mission’s success is a milestone; a stride forward,” Wen said. “I would like to extend my congratulations to the heroic astronauts who successfully completed this mission.”

The spacewalk was a key step in mastering techniques for docking two orbiters to create China’s first orbiting space station. Tethered to handles attached to the Shenzhou 7 ship’s orbital module, Zhai remained outside for about 13 minutes before climbing back inside.

China has relied heavily on homegrown technology, partly out of necessity. It has trouble obtaining such technology abroad due to U.S. and European bans and is not a participant in the international space station.

The Chinese program is backed by the secretive military. While Beijing insists it is committed to a peaceful program, analysts point to numerous potential applications for its technology, such as when it used a land-based missile to blast apart an old satellite last January.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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