Zhai and his two fellow astronauts returned to Earth on Sunday on board the Shenzhou VII capsule, landing in the remote Inner Mongolia region of western China.

The three-day mission was given blanket coverage on state media, with the launch, spacewalk and landing back on Earth broadcast live to millions across the country.

Pride

Zhai's spacewalk was given blanket coverage across Chinese state media [Reuters]

China's government has portrayed the mission as a demonstration of the country's technological progress under its leadership and a focus for national pride.

It has also given officials a welcome diversion from a toxic milk scandal that has poisoned thousands of infants and inflamed public anger.

Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, praised the mission as "a victory of the Chinese space and technological field and a monumental achievement in the socialist causes".

"Your historical feat will be remembered by the country and the people," he said.

China sent its first man into space in 2003 and followed up with a two-man mission in 2005.

It is only the third nation after the US and Russia capable of independently launching humans into space.

Wang Zhaoyao, a spokesman for the manned space programme, told reporters over the weekend that China believed that "as long as we can make further progress in science and technology, we can achieve the dream of a manned space flight to the moon in the near future".

Space lab

Nasa's ageing shuttle fleet is due to be retired in 2010 [Reuters]

Wang said China's plans called for new missions over the next decade aimed at developing the knowledge required for long-term space habitation, such as docking technology.

According to reports in state media the next two launches in the programme will be unmanned and will deploy components that will become the basis of a space lab, to be opened by the manned Shenzhou X mission, currently scheduled for 2010.

During Saturday's spacewalk, Zhai floated outside the Shenzhou VII module holding the Chinese flag - a highly symbolic gesture just days before Nasa, the US space agency, marks its 50th anniversary on Wednesday.

The latest success for China's space programme comes as Nasa faces growing questions over its budget and future capabilities.

Under current plans the US space shuttle fleet is due to be retired in 2010, with its replacement manned spacecraft, Orion, not due to come online until 2015.

That will leave the US with no manned space launch ability for five years, relying solely on Russian spacecraft to ferry its astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

Such a prospect has led some US politicians to suggest that without urgent investment Nasa is in danger of surrendering its long-standing pre-eminence in space to rising powers such as China.