Eyes on the future, a triumphant China celebrated its first space traveler’s safe return Thursday by announcing ambitious new goals: another flight within two years and a space station.
The announcement came as state television repeatedly broadcast scenes of Lt. Col. Yang Liwei climbing from his Shenzhou 5 capsule and waving to cheering rescue workers after landing at dawn Thursday on China’s northern grasslands. Doctors declared Yang in good shape, and mission control called his 21½-hour flight a success.
The landing clinched China’s bragging rights as the third member of the elite club of spacefaring nations — a prize communist leaders spent 11 years and $2.2 billion orchestrating, in hopes of winning respect abroad and support at home.
“We certainly believe this achievement will further inspire ... greater patriotic fervor,” said Xie Mingbao, the Chinese human spaceflight program’s chief engineer.
Emboldened by success, program officials talked openly for the first time about China’s future plans in space, confirming suggestions that Beijing wants a long-term presence there.
The next Shenzhou flight should take place “within one or two years,” Xie said, grinning with delight at a news conference. He said that after a series of flights to master skills in spacewalking and docking, China planned to launch a space lab that could support a crew for limited periods.
“The third step is to develop a space station,” he said.
However, he said, China has no plans for a space shuttle like those of the United States, and will rely instead on the Shenzhou to service its orbital station.
Space officials gave no timeline for launching the space station, and Xie said plans were modest: “We are not actually planning to catch up with the (former Russian) Mir space station or the international space station at this moment.”
Still, the comments were a startling break from the reflexive secrecy of the military-linked program. The government canceled a live telecast of the launch and didn’t disclose Yang’s name until he was racing toward orbit Wednesday from a Gobi Desert launch base.
During the flight, the government released a blizzard of information about Yang, including his space menu (bite-size nuggets of spicy shredded pork, diced chicken and fried rice cooked with “nuts, dates and other delicacies”) and the fact that he took a three-hour orbital nap.
Immediately following his landing Thursday, Yang was flown to Beijing, where state television showed him, dressed in a cobalt-blue jumpsuit, descending the aircraft stairs on a red carpet and saluting Defense Minister Cao Gangchuan. The two men smiled and shook hands before Yang boarded a minibus wrapped in a red ribbon.
“To fulfill the 1,000-year-old dream of the Chinese nation to fly in space is a sacred mission,” Yang said before the launch in comments released for the first time Thursday by the official Xinhua News Agency. “We are lucky to assume this task and feel greatly honored.”
Thousands of jubilant people gathered at the capital’s Millennium Monument to celebrate. Newspapers rushed out extra editions, some with their whole front page covered in a picture of Yang’s liftoff. Others showed him in the capsule holding a Chinese flag or before the launch saluting President Hu Jintao.
“It’s great!” said Shu Shulan, a teen-ager in the northwestern city of Lanzhou. “Maybe one day I’ll take a trip in a spaceship. Everybody should share in the joy.”
The budget for the manned space program has long been secret, but Xie said Thursday that it has cost $2.2 billion so far — a major commitment for China, where the average person makes $700 a year.
Yang's successful flight came four decades after the former Soviet Union and the United States pioneered human spaceflight. Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth in April 1961. Less than one month later, the United States launched Alan B. Shepard Jr. on a suborbital mission, then followed up with John Glenn’s orbital flight in 1962.
Officials at both NASA and the Russian space agency congratulated China on its achievement. NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe wished his Chinese counterparts “a continued safe human spaceflight program,” while Russian space official Nikolai Moiseyev noted proudly that “Russia has fed all the world’s space programs.”
At least in its external look, the Shenzhou craft is based on the design of the Russian Soyuz capsule, and Russia helped train China’s first astronauts — or “taikonauts,” to use the Chinese term. With NASA’s shuttle fleet grounded because of February’s tragedy, the Soyuz spaceships represent the only way to travel between Earth and the international space station.
MSNBC’s Alan Boyle and The Associated Press contributed to this report.