BEIJING (Reuters) - Astronaut Zhai Zhigang became the first Chinese man to walk in space on Saturday, clambering out of China’s Shenzhou VII spacecraft in a technological feat that Beijing wants the world to marvel at.
“I’m feeling quite well. I greet the Chinese people and the people of the world,” Zhai said as he climbed out of the craft, his historic achievement carried live on state television.
Zhai, the 41-year-old son of a snack-seller, unveiled a small Chinese flag, helped by colleague Liu Boming, who also briefly popped his head out of the capsule.
Zhai re-entered the spacecraft safely after a walk of about 15 minutes, marking the high point of China’s third manned space flight, which has received blanket media coverage.
He wore a $4.4 million Chinese-made suit weighing 120 kg (265lb). Liu wore a Russian-made suit and acted as a back-up.
Zhai, tethered to the ship, slowly made his way toward a chunk of solid lubricant outside the capsule, took a sample and handed it to Liu, the official Xinhua news agency said, in an experiment aimed at improving the durability of the materials.
The crew later launched a small satellite to take the first full images of the spacecraft from the outside.
Shenzhou VII, which took off on Thursday, is due to land on Sunday at around 5 p.m (0900 GMT), said mission spokesman Wang Zhaoyao.
President Hu Jintao spoke to the astronauts on their return to the capsule, congratulating them on their efforts and wishing them a “triumphant” return.
“You’ve done a great job,” Hu said.
Zhai, apparently reading from a prepared script, thanked Hu. “The space walk mission has been accomplished smoothly. Please set your mind at ease, Chairman Hu and the people of China,” Zhai said.
“In the vastness of space, I felt proud of our motherland.”
The risky space walk was a step toward China’s longer-term goal of assembling a space lab and then a larger space station.
The fast-growing Asian power wants to be sure of a say in the future use of space and its resources.
Chinese Communist Party leaders, also celebrating the mission, hailing the country’s achievements in a year in which Beijing has staged a successful Olympics and coped with a devastating earthquake in Sichuan in May.
A Xinhua commentary praised the mission as adding “an upbeat note to an eventful year” — references to events such as the earthquake.
“(The space mission) is seen as another source of pride and joy for the people after the Olympics.”
But Xinhua also said that China remained far behind the two leading space powers, Russia and the United States. “Compared with these countries, China is still a latecomer and is only taking its starting steps,” it said.
Xinhua said millions tuned in to watch the event on television, some on large outdoor screens.
“It’s worth the money. It shows our country is getting stronger, and other countries will not dare bully us,” said civil servant Jiang Guishan, watching along with hundreds of others in Beijing’s fashionable Wangfujing shopping district.
“We have encountered a lot of difficulties, but we will not be defeated when faced with them, and will only overcome the obstacles and be strong. Now this is a great example,” added travel agent Wu Qixin.
China’s space programme has come a long way since late leader Mao Zedong, founder of Communist China in 1949, lamented that the country could not even launch a potato into space.
China’s first manned spaceflight was in 2003, followed by a two-man flight in 2005. The only other countries that have sent people into space are Russia and the United States.
Additional reporting by Chris Buckley, Alan Wheatley and Vivi Lin; editing by Tim Pearce