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Chinese Space Mission Returns to Earth

Chinese astronauts have returned safely to earth after a three-day orbital mission that included a space walk. Daniel Schearf reports from Beijing.

China's state television broadcast images of the Shenzhou 7 spacecraft as it parachuted back to earth on the flat grasslands of China's Inner Mongolia province.

A team of men in red jump suits helped the three Chinese astronauts, in their bulky spacesuits, to exit the craft.

They were presented with flowers and later carried off in their chairs.

Astronaut Zhai Zhigang led the mission and was the first Chinese to perform a spacewalk by exiting the craft while in space.

He says the mission was glorious, full of challenges and with a successful end. He says he is proud of his motherland.

The walk was a key test of Chinese astronauts' ability to operate in space.

Chinese political and military leaders watched from the control center.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao declared the astronauts heroes and said the mission would benefit China's economy, technology development, and national defense.

He says it marks China's becoming the third country in the world to independently grasp the technology for entering space. He says it is a great victory for the country's space flight capabilities.

China sent its first man into space in 2003, and this latest effort was the third manned mission to space.

The space walk was also another step towards Beijing's goal to build a space station in the next few years.

The United States and other countries are watching China's space program carefully.

Last year China's military used a missile-launched weapon to destroy an old satellite. The move was not announced, left scattered debris in orbit, and was widely seen as a demonstration of China's space power.

Beijing says it has only peaceful, scientific plans for space.