BEIJING Three Chinese astronauts returned to Earth on Wednesday, touching down in north China's Inner Mongolia after a successful 15-day mission in which they docked with an experimental manned space laboratory.
The Shenzhou 10 spacecraft, China's fifth manned space mission since 2003, completed the final trial docking with the Tiangong (Heavenly Palace) 1, critical in Beijing's quest to build a working space station by 2020.
China Central Television showed the re-entry of the capsule, dangling from an orange parachute, and its landing on flat grasslands shortly after 8 a.m. China time.
China successfully carried out its first manned docking exercise with Tiangong 1 last June, a milestone in an effort to acquire the technological and logistical skills to run a full space station that can house people for long periods.
The Shenzhou 10 was commanded by Nie Haisheng, with Zhang Xiaoguang and female astronaut Wang Yaping also on board.
The astronauts began emerging about 90 minutes after landing, helped out of the nose of the capsule by workers in white jumpsuits and into waiting chairs, smiling and waving to the TV camera.
"It's good to be home," Nie told CCTV. "Space is our dream. The motherland is always our home."
Wang gave a 50-minute televised physics lecture last week on the effects of weightlessness, widely viewed by middle school students around the country.
"This mission made me realize two dreams: my dream of flying to outer space, and my dream of being a teacher," she told CCTV. "If you have a dream, you can succeed."
The Global Times, a tabloid published by the same company that puts out the official Communist Party newspaper the People's Daily, echoed some criticism among the public about the expense of China's space programme.
"Currently, China's passion to develop space technology mainly lingers at the government level. Some even blame the government for political vanity and question whether the money couldn't be spent improving people's livelihoods," the paper said in an editorial, published before the landing.
The mission went "perfectly", Wang Zhaoyao, director of China's manned space programme, said at a news conference in Beijing.
China is still far from catching up with the established space superpowers, the United States and Russia, which decades ago learned the docking techniques carried out by the Shenzhou 10.
China must still master launching cargo and fuel via space freighters and recycling air and water for extended manned missions, state media have said. Plans call for a working space lab, the Tiangong 2, to be put into orbit in two years.
Beijing insists its space programme is for peaceful purposes, but the U.S. Defense Department has highlighted China's increasing space capabilities and said Beijing is pursuing a variety of activities aimed at preventing its adversaries from using space-based assets during a crisis.
(Reporting and writing by Terril Yue Jones and Michael Martina.; Editing by Nick Macfie)