Astronauts Fei Junlong, 40, and Nie Haisheng, 41, were flown to Beijing where they were given a hero's welcome after their Shenzhou VI space capsule touched down in the remote
steppes of the northern Chinese region of Inner Mongolia on Monday.

The two men were in good health after orbiting the Earth 76 times, covering 3.25 million km. State media hailed the mission as a breakthrough marking China's emergence as a major technological power. 

Soon after the craft touched down at 4.33am (2033 GMT),
barely 1km from its target, jubilant residents in Fei's and Nie's hometowns set off firecrackers and performed traditional dragon and lion dances, banging gongs and drums. 

Returning dignity

"The motherland is so great!" the official Xinhua news agency quoted Fei's father as saying. Fei's mother wept on learning of his safe return. 

The hometowns of Fei (L) and Nie
Haisheng celebrated their return

State television showed the astronauts emerging unaided, pausing atop the charred re-entry craft to wave to the recovery team and the media.

Tang Xianming, director of the Manned Space Engineering Office, told a news conference that China would aim for a spacewalk by 2007 and consider putting a woman in space soon.

Patriotic rhetoric included a Xinhua commentary declaring that: 

"At this moment, history is returning dignity and sanctity to the Chinese nation. In memories of the not too distant past, we were poor, in darkness and endured the bullying of imperialist powers.

"The sons of China, with their thousands of years of civilisation, were called the sick man of Asia." 

Watching the touchdown from the space command centre in
Beijing, parliament chief Wu Bangguo declared the mission had
"raised China's international status, our economic and technological strength, defence and national cohesion". 

Shoestring budget

Colonel Yang Liwei became the first Chinese man in space when he orbited the Earth 14 times on board Shenzhou V in October 2003, giving China membership to the exclusive club of countries that have put a man into space. 

The whole Shenzhou programme
is said to have cost $2.3 billion

The former Soviet Union and the United States first sent men into orbit in 1961. 

President Hu Jintao had spoken to the two astronauts by telephone at the weekend, just days after presiding over a top-level Communist Party meeting that spelt out the country's plans to accelerate its technological development. 

China has run its ambitious space programme on a relative
shoestring budget. Xinhua quoted a Chinese academic as saying the cost of developing the whole Shenzhou programme was about $2.3 billion, a fraction of the $16 billion budget of US space agency Nasa for 2005 alone.

China has also used its increasingly reliable Long March rockets to put more than 50 satellites into orbit, including several for foreign clients.