After months of anticipation, China's Shenzhou V spacecraft was finally "good to go." And go it did.
The nation's first manned space flight blasted off from its launch pad in the Gobi Desert, carrying Yang Liwei, China's first taikonaut, or divine navigator, into space, and at the same time taking his country into the record books. China has now successfully become the third country, after Russia and the United States, to launch a man into space, using home-grown technology.
China Central Television (CCTV) Channel 1 interrupted its regular programming to announce news of the launch. Pictures of Shenzhou V, otherwise known as Divine Vessel V, streaking into the morning sky, followed shortly thereafter, as did the news that Liwei, a 38-year-old air force pilot, was the man piloting the capsule.
After a half-hour in orbit, Yang radioed down a message to mission control in Beijing. His face plastered on giant video screens, China's newest national hero said simply, "I feel good." The scientists, engineers, doctors and other mission personnel on hand broke into applause.
Historic Success for China
As word of the space shot spread throughout China in newspaper special editions and on Internet sites, the buzz on the street started to build.
Today is a proud day for China. To the government, a successful launch was an important means of winning respect and prestige from the international community. As one space expert put it, China was seeking to "join the big boys" in the technology sector. Mission accomplished.
Wang Jun, a 30-year-old sales manager, beamed with pride over his country's accomplishment. "I'm excited. China has joined the ranks of powerful countries," he said. "The launch of the spacecraft shows our country has more capacity and strength. I'm honored to be Chinese."
Sixty-five-year-old Shi Hurorong, a retired engineer, agreed. "The old dream has come true," he said. "I'm very delighted and proud. The dream of becoming a powerful nation has come true."
Chinese President Hu Jintao also talked about China's great dream: to launch a man into space and take its place among the world's superpowers. Hu watched the launch at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest Chinas Gansu Province. He called the launch, "the glory of our great motherland and a mark for the initial victory of the country's first manned space flight and for the significant, historic step of the Chinese people in the advance of climbing over the peak of the world's science and technology."
China has, for centuries, considered itself to be a technologically advanced society. They believe they created the first rockets 1,000 years ago — firecrackers attached to a warrior's arrow.
Joan Johnson-Frees, a space analyst for the U.S. Naval War College, says that for China, being a world leader in space and technology is an important part of their national identity. "The Chinese people feel that their heritage, their legacy, if you will, is to be a technology leader," she said. "And that that has slipped away from them over time."
In their eagerness to show off the new space program to the world, the Chinese government has gradually shed the veil of secrecy that has surrounded the endeavor for months, if not years. Officials now say that Yang is scheduled to make 14 orbits around the earth — a 21-hour journey — before parachuting back down again somewhere in the desert of Mongolia.
So far, so good, and Yang seems quite at ease in his new surroundings. He's already had his first meal of diced chicken and rice, followed by a nap.