China’s next manned mission, Shenzhou 7, is expected to launch in 2007, and will include the nation’s first spacewalk and a “docking experiment, ” the Shanghai Daily newspaper reported Oct. 13.

China’s space program is a source of national pride and prestige for the nation’s Communist government, which has announced plans to build a manned space station and aims at launching an unmanned probe to the Moon by 2010.

Two Chinese taikonauts are safely back on Earth after their Shenzhou 6 spacecraft successfully touched down on the grasslands of Inner Mongolia Oct. 16 , concluding a five-day mission and China’s second manned spaceflight.

The space capsule carrying the Shenzhou 6 taikonauts, as astronauts are known in China, Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng landed Oct. 17 at 4:32 a.m. local time , the country’s official Xinhua News Agency and China Central Television (CCTV) reported.

Both taikonauts were reported to be in good health and wore broad smiles while waving to recovery crews, photographers and television cameras after exiting their Shenzhou 6 spacecraft. Their egress and a welcoming ceremony were broadcast live on CCTV.

“I want to thank the people for their love and care,” Fei said during the ceremony, in which both taikonauts were given flowers and seated in chairs.

They later washed down chocolate and instant noodles with herbal tea while undergoing preliminary medical checks, Xinhua said. The taikonauts then boarded recovery helicopters to begin their journey back to Beijing, the news agency said.

The Shenzhou 6 crew spent 115 hours and 32 minutes in space, and traveled 3.25 million kilometers during their mission, which set new human spaceflight records for China.

CCTV showed flight controllers and technicians at Beijing Aerospace Command and Control Center bursting into applause after hearing Fei and Nie were safe and back on Earth.

In Nie’s hometown of Zaoyang, in China’s central province of Hubei, fireworks lit up the dark morning sky as revelers danced to celebrate the astronauts’ safe return to Earth in video broadcast on CCTV. A similar celebration was held in Fei’s hometown of Kunshan, located in China’s eastern province of Jiangsu.

“I declare that China’s Shenzhou 6 manned spaceflight has been a great success,” said Chen Bingde, commander-in-chief of China’s space program, during a post-landing address at Beijing Aerospace Command and Control Center broadcast on CCTV.

Fei and Nie launched into space Oct. 12 Beijing Time (late Oct. 11 EDT) on China’s second manned spaceflight and the first to carry two taikonauts . The space shot lifted off from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert almost two years to the day of China’s first manned launch.

That first mission, Shenzhou 5, launched astronaut Yang Liwei into orbit on Oct. 15, 2003. China is the third country to independently launch humans into Earth orbit after Russia and the United States. But unlike Yang’s flight, which was guarded from the public eye, much of the Shenzhou 6 mission — from its launch to landing — was broadcast live on national Chinese television.

Wu Banggua, Chairman of the Chinese National People’s Congress (NPC), heralded the Shenzhou 6 spaceflight while addressing flight controllers at the mission’s Beijing Control and Command Center.

With Shenzhou 6, China has “achieved another milestone achievement in terms of space exploration,” Wu said during the speech, which was broadcast live on CCTV.

Shenzhou 6’s five-day spaceflight marked the first time that Chinese astronauts entered their spacecraft’s orbital module and participated in science experiments and tests of new spaceflight hardware. They also took digital photographs of the space, the Earth and their work inside Shenzhou 6, according to state media reports.

China’s Shenzhou manned spacecraft borrow a general design from Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft, and consist of a re-entry capsule, where the taikonauts sit during launch and landing; an orbital module to house experiments; equipment and living facilities; and a propulsion module to carry power and engine systems. But the spacecraft is heavily modified and modernized, and its orbital module — which carries its own solar panels — can remain in orbit for long periods of time.

Fei and Nie jettisoned the orbital module before returning to Earth, and Xinhua stated that ground trackers following the module found it performing well alone in orbit.

“The successful mission is of great significance for elevating China’s prestige in the world and promoting China’s economic, scientific and national defense capabilities, and its national cohesiveness,” Wu said of Shenzhou 6.