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China claims its place in space

The launch took place into a cloudless desert sky.
The launch took place into a cloudless desert sky.

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• Satellite image: Launch site
• Explainer: The Shenzhou V
• Timeline: China's space program
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(CNN) -- China's first astronaut Yang Liwei is in orbit following a successful launch Wednesday morning from the Jiuquan launch site in the western Gobi Desert, state media reports.

Speaking from space, the 38-year-old astronaut reported back to mission controllers that he "feels good" and said the spacecraft is operating normally, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported.

Yang, a former air force pilot, is expected to make 14 orbits in the Shenzhou V spacecraft before returning to Earth at a landing site in Inner Mongolia.

Quoted by Chinese media just before he blasted off into space, Yang said he would "gain honor for the People's Liberation Army and for the Chinese nation."

"I will not disappoint the motherland," he was quoted as saying. "I will complete each movement with total concentration."

All being well, the flight looks set to bring China entry to an elite club of space powers, making it only the third country after Russia and the United States capable of putting humans into space and returning them safely to Earth.

The Long March 2-F rocket carrying the Shenzhou V spacecraft blasted off just seconds after 9 a.m. local time (0100 GMT) Wednesday.

Chinese President Hu Jintao and other senior leaders and VIPs were at the Jiuquan site to witness the launch.

Quoted later by Xinhua, Hu praised the launch as "the glory of our great motherland," describing the flight as an "historic step of the Chinese people in the advance of climbing over the peak of the world's science and technology."

'Operating normally'

The spacecraft entered orbit at about 9:10 a.m. (0110GMT), Xinhua said.

"Shenzhou V is operating normally in orbit," the agency quoted Li Jinai, chief commander of the country's manned space program as saying.

Earlier this week, state-run CCTV cancelled plans to broadcast live television pictures of the launch on the advice of "space experts."

Observers said China's leaders considered the political risks of a launch failure too great to allow live coverage.

But following an apparently textbook blast off, Chinese television broke into its regular programming to announce the launch and the news that the country's first astronaut was in space.

No outside journalists were allowed permits to cover the event, with only a few representatives of Chinese state-run media observing the launch.

Video images showed the rocket soaring into a cloudless sky, with other pictures from mission control showing a video feed of Yang inside the capsule.

"I feel good," Yang radioed back to mission controllers about half an hour into his flight, Xinhua reported.

China's space program has close ties to the military and is surrounded by secrecy.

China's first astronaut Yang Liwei makes his way to the launchpad Wednesday morning.
China's first astronaut Yang Liwei makes his way to the launchpad Wednesday morning.

Few details of the mission were announced in advance with even the launch time kept a secret until the last moment and officials saying only that the spacecraft would take off sometime between Wednesday and Friday.

Despite that secrecy, China's leaders are hoping that a successful flight will boost national pride, rally popular sentiment behind the communist party and raise the profile of Chinese technology.

The launch of China's first astronaut comes 42 years after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space aboard Vostock 1.

Less than a month later the United States -- driven by Cold War paranoia about the communist take over of space -- launched its first astronaut, Alan Shepard, on a sub-orbital flight.

Now another name joins those figures in space history as Yang Liwei takes up the mantle as his country's first man in space.

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