China has launched its first manned space mission, becoming the third nation after the United States and the former Soviet Union to put a human in orbit.
The controller at the Jiuquan satellite launch center in northern China's Gobi desert announced the lift-off. Observers applauded as the Shenzhou 5, or "Divine Vessel," lifted off into a clear blue sky Wednesday morning, powered by Chinese-made Long March rockets.
Aboard the spacecraft is Yang Liwei, a 38-year-old Air Force Lieutenant Colonel, reported a few a minutes into the launch that he felt good and all systems were functioning normally. The Shenzhou 5, although designed and built in China by Chinese scientists, is largely based on older Soviet Soyuz technology.
Minutes after liftoff, Chinese space officials called the launch a success. The mission involves 14 orbits around the earth and was expected to last just over 20 hours.
Mr. Yang, whose identity was kept a secret until a few hours before the launch, has become an instant national hero.
People gathered around televisions in Beijing to watch him receive his commanders' orders before he boarded the spacecraft, which is about the size of a small truck. For many, seeing their country put a man in space is a dream come true. People on the streets of Beijing spoke readily of how proud they feel.
You Bao Cheng, who works as a researcher said he regards the launch as more a feat for China than its successful bid to host the 2008 Olympic games. "I am very happy. This is a big thing for the Chinese people. We're the only country other than the United States and Russia to have done this," she says. "This is a proof of our development and it will strengthen our place in the international community."
Ma Bao Ling, a grandmother, said she never thought she would live to see this day. "This launch proves we developed very fast. Most people are shocked by this because it has happened so fast," she says. "I am 50-something and from the old generation. I don't really understand what is modern. I just want to say I love my country and I love my people."
Among those watching the launch at Jiuquan was President Hu Jintao, who traveled to the facility after concluding the four-day gathering of top Communist Party leaders in Beijing on Tuesday.
The Chinese leader spoke after the liftoff, calling the Shenzhou Five mission the "glory" of the Chinese motherland. He said the communist party and the Chinese people will never forget those who have been part of the space program. The launch is seen as a bid by China to gain international prestige and promote national pride and unity.
Liftoff occurred at nine o'clock local time. It was not until 18 minutes after the spaceship entered orbit that Chinese television aired a recorded version of the launch.
State television decided at the last minute not to broadcast the liftoff live. Analysts outside China say this was probably due to fear that live images of a launch - had it been unsuccessful - would have been damaging to the government's image.