The night of October 16 was a sleepless one for many Chinese. In the Beijing Aerospace Command and Control Center, hundreds of experts and technicians were hard at work in deep concentration. Senior leaders including top legislator Wu Bangguo were at the center, watching the live broadcast of the landing of Shenzhou 6. Many Chinese sat glued to their TV sets, waiting anxiously for the return of the spacecraft.
At 4:33 a.m., the Shenzhou 6 capsule landed by parachute on the grasslands of Inner Mongolia. Joyous cheers greeted astronauts Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng at 5:38 a.m., both "in fine condition," as they climbed out of the kettle-shaped shuttle capsule.
After flying 2 million miles in 115 hours and 32 minutes in space, Shenzhou 6 brought China's second manned space mission to a close, making it only the third country to put a man in space after Russia and the United States.
Wu Bangguo declared China's second manned space mission a "complete success," and stressed that it signified landmark progress in China's space technology. "The successful mission is of great significance for elevating China's prestige in the world and promoting China's economic, scientific and national defense capabilities, and its national cohesiveness," Wu said.
Shenzhou 6 has set several records compared with Shenzhou 5, that led China's maiden manned space mission two years ago and was piloted by only one astronaut, Yang Liwei, who spent 21 hours and 23 minutes orbiting the Earth without leaving his seat or taking off his space suit, according to experts.
Shenzhou 6 is the country's first two-pilot and multi-day space mission, paving the way for Chinese astronauts to live and work in space stations in the future. The astronauts moved three times back and forth between the orbital and return modules in the spacecraft, the first of its kind in space for Chinese astronauts. They also closed and reopened the internal module door and made an airproof test on the door. The air-proof function of the internal door between the orbital and return modules is crucial for the safety of astronauts after the designed separation of the two modules.
Fei and Nie conducted a series of scientific experiments aboard Shenzhou 6, including observing and monitoring the Earth, ocean pollution, the atmosphere and vegetation. To deepen their understanding of human space flight, the two astronauts experienced space life - taking off and putting on their space suits, eating heated food, drinking unpolluted water coming from depths of 1,700-meters, using "space toilets," resting in sleeping bags, shaving, entertaining themselves by turning somersaults, and making video recording of their experiments.
The Shenzhou 6 mission marks the completion of the first stage of a "three-step strategic plan" for the development of China's manned space engineering formulated under the approval of the Chinese Government in 1992, said Tang Xianming, Director of China Manned Space Engineering Office at a press conference held by the State Council Information Office on October 17.
In February this year, the Chinese Government approved the objectives for the second phase of the development plan. The main purpose of this is to achieve breakthroughs in extravehicular activities, the rendezvous docking of flight vehicles in orbit, and in relevant scientific tests, according to Tang.
"At present, various tasks under the second-phase plan are in full swing. I can predict that around 2007 we will be able to achieve extravehicular activities by our astronauts and they will walk in space," Tang said. "In 2009-12, we will have realized rendezvous docking of flight vehicles in orbit."
Tang said he also expected to see female Chinese astronauts soon. "Currently, we do not have women participants, but according to our development program and plans for manned space engineering, for the next round of selections, we might consider having some women astronauts."
The official further disclosed that the final goal of China's manned space engineering program is to build a permanent space station.
Development of man-made earth satellites, manned space engineering missions and deep space probes represent three major areas for space activities, said Xu Dazhe, Deputy General Manager of China Aerospace Science and Technology Group Ltd. "Since China has made great progress and important achievements in the first two areas, to carry out deep space exploration with lunar probes at an appropriate time will be a focus of China's space program," Xu added.
China has started the lunar probe program, according to Xu. The China Aerospace Science and Technology Group Ltd. has participated in the research and development of the Chang'e I lunar-probing satellite and related launch vehicle.
The process of lunar probe and exploration activities include orbiting, landing and return. Xu said that China is currently engaged in lunar probing, not landing, and that research and development of the Chang'e 1 lunar orbitor is well under way as planned.
China's manned space missions are aimed at contributing to science and to peace, said Premier Wen Jiabao shortly after the launch of Shenzhou 6. "We are willing to join hands with people all over the world for peaceful use of space."
Wang Yongzhi, Chief Designer of China's manned space program, pointed out that China has been carrying out its space program for peace and in accordance with its own timetable and needs.
Tang Xianming also reiterated at the October 17 press conference that China's endeavor to develop its manned space flight program is completely for peaceful purposes. "Our manned space flight is to peacefully explore outer space for the benefit of humankind, which is also a due contribution the Chinese nation should make to humanity," Tang said.
China's current objective is to grasp basic technologies for manned space missions and arrange a series of space scientific tests and experiments, including space life, space materials, space environment and remote sensing, according to Tang. From previous missions of Shenzhou spaceships, China has seen results in these areas.
"We may have unexpected gains in our outer space exploration as the world faces increasing consumption and shortage of energy, while looking for possible special effects in terms of biological and agricultural technology in outer space," said Wang Changhong, professor at the Aerospace Institute of Harbin University of Technology.
For the purposes of scientific exploration and peaceful use of space, China has been advocating international cooperation in this regard.
Such cooperation started a long time ago, according to Tang, citing that more than 30 foreign satellites have been sent into space by Chinese rockets at Chinese launch sites in the past decade.