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China has become the first Asian country to send a human being into space, with the successful launch and safe return of its Shenzhou V spacecraft carrying a single Chinese astronaut, or "taikonaut."

Yang Liwei was blasted into orbit by a Long March 2F rocket at 0100 GMT, or 9 a.m. local time, on Oct. 15, RFA's language services report.

"I feel good," Yang said, as the spacecraft entered its first circuit around the Earth. He later said "Hello" to all the peoples of the world, and said how beautiful the Earth looked from space.

The Shenzhou V touched down on the northern grasslands of Inner Mongolia after 14 orbits, bringing his 21-hour-23-minute space voyage to a well-executed end at 6.23 a.m. (2223 GMT). Yang appeared full of energy and in excellent health as he sprang from the capsule to be driven away to a hero's welcome.

China's leaders sent an instant congratulatory message, which was read out by Premier Wen Jiabao who witnessed the landing at the command and control center.

"This is of a practical and far-reaching historic significance in China's endeavor to promote the development of its high-tech industries, to enhance the national economic and technical levels and defense capabilities, and to increase the rallying power of the Chinese nation," the message said.

Yang's flight makes China the third country to launch a manned spaceflight, after the Soviet Union and the United States more than 40 years ago.

Millions across the country followed the flight�a key achievement for the Communist Party in drumming up nationalistic fervor amid painful economic reforms and rapid social change�on television, radio, and the Internet.

But the authorities accused activists from the banned Falungong spiritual movement of jamming broadcasts of the space flight, saying that the interfering signals were detected as coming from Taiwan.

"Falun Gong cult followers stopped Chinese viewers from watching broadcasts of China's first manned space mission when they blocked Sino Satellite, a Chinese TV satellite," the official Xinhua news agency reported.

It said group members illegally transmitted signals from 6 p.m. to 7:45 p.m. Wednesday, while many people were trying to watch the space flight programs.

The launch won China congratulations from around the world. In the United States, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe welcomed the Chinese launch as "an important achievement in the history of human exploration."

"The Chinese people have a long and distinguished history of exploration. NASA wishes China a continued safe human space flight program," O'Keefe said in a statement. Russia, the first nation to send a person into space, was also the first to congratulate Beijing.

Yang, a lieutenant colonel in the People's Liberation Army, was chosen from a pool of 14 as the country's first taikonaut. The son of a teacher and an official at an agricultural firm Yang was raised in the northeastern "rust belt" province of Liaoning.

Part of China's technology�reported by official media as homegrown, but actually with a strong Russian heritage�was directed at preserving the taste of home cuisine for the first Chinese person in space. While in space, Yang ate specially designed packets of shredded pork with garlic and "eight treasure" rice, washed down with Chinese herbal tea, state media said.

Mao Zedong launched China's space program in 1958. China was quickly left far behind in the Cold War "space race" rivalry that saw the United States put a man on the moon in 1969.

However, Huang Dong, a Macao-based military analyst, dismissed the notion that the United States should fear China overtaking it in space technology and exploration.

"While the Shenzhou V spacecraft has much better capabilities than America�s first manned spacecraft of many years ago, China still has a long way to go�at least 10 or 20 year just to approach where the United States is now," Huang told RFA�s Mandarin service.

Zheng Yushuo, a political science professor at Hong Kong City University, noted that China's neighbors would surely prompt worries closer to home.

"China's space program will certainly draw concern from Japan and India," Zheng said. "In fact, facing North Korea's [nuclear] threat, Japan is now in close cooperation with the United States in developing strategic missile defense plans in addition to its plans to launch four reconnaissance satellites this year."

Back in China, some were already asking themselves about the implications for Chinese culture. "Space has finally opened its doors to the 1.3 billion Chinese people who have for thousands of years been in the grip of Confucianism," Xinhua quoted Shanghai-based science fiction author Han Song as saying.

"What will this bring to us? What impact will it have on our minds and our perceptions of the world? That deserves deeper thought than the success of space technology," Han said. #####


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