The Shenzhou V, or “Divine Ship V”, launched on Wednesday, was expected to orbit the Earth 14 times before returning after about 21 hours.
The spacecraft carried astronaut Yang Liwei, 38. The launch, 42 years after the Soviet Union put the first man into space, marked a milestone for China’s secretive space programme, which analysts say has its sights set on a manned mission to the moon.
A huge convoy of buses and cars set out before dawn on Wednesday for the Jiuquan Launch Centre to catch a glimpse of the launch of Shenzhou V.
The authorities did their best – in vain – to keep the historic event low key as the country attempted to join the US and Soviet Union in the space super league.
Under clear skies, at least 50 buses and many more cars packed with tourists and Chinese journalists left Jiuquan city for the 200 kilometre (124 mile) trek across the Gobi desert to what has been labelled Space City.
China’s space log
1958 – Chairman Mao Zedong declares China to develop atomic bombs, missiles and satellites
1959 – China launches its first rocket
1970 – China launches its first satellite
1992 – Communist Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin calls for China to launch a manned spacecraft.
December 1996 – Two Chinese astronauts start training at Russia’s Star City Space Centre.
2001 – China launches Shenzhou II in Gansu. Carrying a monkey, a dog, a rabbit and snails, it returns safely to Earth in Inner Mongolia
October 15-17, 2003 – China’s first manned spaceship is due to blast off from the Gobi desert and orbit Earth 14 times.
China was about to make space history and no one wanted to miss out on the momentous occasion.
However roadblocks had been thrown up on the only road winding towards the secret military launch pad in northeast China’s Inner Mongolia.
On Tuesday, the army were halting vehicles 35 kilometres (21 miles) from the launch centre, established nearly half a century ago and used many times before to send satellites into space.
As the convoy wound its way through cotton fields and desert Wednesday, a first road block was encountered 100 kilometres (62 miles) north of Jiuquan city.
However, after cursory checks of accreditation police waved the hundreds of space enthusiasts through.
China’s leaders even cancelled an expected live broadcast of the event leaving just the official Xinhua news agency and the government mouthpiece People’s Daily newspaper as the only media given access to the historic launch.
Weather forecasters had earlier certified perfect conditions on Wednesday with little wind and few clouds.