BEIJING – Shown live on state television, the two astronauts emerged from their kettle-shaped capsule, grinning and waving in the predawn darkness. They climbed down a ladder and accepted bouquets of flowers from their cheering retrieval crew.

The Shenzhou 6 space capsule landed early today in China’s northern grasslands, ending the country’s second manned space mission the way it began – in a blaze of publicity meant to rouse support for the ruling Communist Party.

“This will further improve the country’s international status and national strength, and will help to mobilize its people to rally around the Communist Party and work harder for the future of the country,” said Wu Bangguo, the party’s No. 2 leader, who watched the landing from a Beijing control center.

Heavy state media coverage of the mission, including live telecasts of the liftoff and landing, was a striking change from China’s first manned space mission in 2003, none of which was broadcast live.

The astronauts, Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng, blasted off Wednesday from a base in the desert northwest, almost exactly two years after China became only the third country to send a human into orbit on its own, after Russia and the United States.

State media showed playful scenes of Fei and Nie in orbit, turning somersaults and setting morsels of food floating in zero gravity.

Communist leaders apparently hope the greater openness will stir patriotic pride, shoring up their standing at a time of public frustration at corruption, wrenching economic change and a growing gap between the country’s rich and poor.

Today, state television showed technicians at the Beijing control center, once a closely guarded secret. The technicians displayed no reaction when an announcer said the capsule had landed but broke into cheers after word came that the astronauts were safe.

“I want to thank the people for their love and care. Thank you very much,” Fei said after he and his crewmate left the capsule.

After a snack of noodles, tea and chocolate, Fei and Nie set off by helicopter for a local airport, the agency said. Earlier reports said they were to fly from there to Beijing.

A commentator on state television quoted one astronaut as saying the first thing he wanted was a hot shower, a steak and a glass of red wine.

Shenzhou 6 flew 2 million miles in 115 hours and 32 minutes in space, Xinhua said.

The mission was substantially longer and more complex than the 2003 flight, when astronaut Yang Liwei orbited for 21½ hours before his capsule landed by parachute.

Chinese leaders have defended the space program’s expense, saying it will help to drive economic and technological development.

The government says the manned space program has cost $2.3 billion to date – a fraction of the budget of its American counterpart.

The government did not disclose the planned length of the Shenzhou 6 flight in advance or details of the astronauts’ mission.

Fei and Nie will be in isolation for observation for 14 days after the mission, but family members will be allowed to visit, the Beijing Youth Daily newspaper said.

The two astronauts are both military men, former fight pilots and Communist Party members.

China has had a rocketry program since the 1950s and launched its first satellite into orbit in 1970.

Its commercial aerospace agency regularly boosts satellites into orbit for foreign customers. The manned space program was inaugurated in 1992.

The Shenzhou 6 is a modified version of Russia’s Soyuz capsule and China bought Russian technology for spacesuits, life-support systems and other equipment, but space officials have said all the items launched into orbit were Chinese-made.

The newspaper Beijing News said Nie and Fei would undergo 40 minutes of medical checkups after landing.

“After several days of flying in space, the astronauts may look wan and sallow, so medical staff will put makeup on them to make them look ruddy,” the newspaper said.


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