AFP, BEIJING - The first Chinese man to walk in space was hailed as a national hero Monday, as the emerging space power gave one of its clearest indications yet that it is now reaching for the Moon.
Mission commander Zhai Zhigang, 41, and his two fellow astronauts arrived here to mass-circulation papers filled with praise for their historic 68-hour voyage on board the Shenzhou VII spacecraft.
"Shenzhou VII has touched down. The heroes have returned successfully," a typical headline read in the popular tabloid Beijing Times stretching across the front page.
Mainstream papers devoted two or three full pages to coverage of the space walk, celebrating China's status as only the third country in the world after the United States and the Soviet Union to accomplish the feat independently.
The astronauts landed Sunday on the empty steppes of Inner Mongolia after concluding a mission viewed both here and abroad as emblematic of China's rise in nearly all fields of human endeavour.
Millions were watching the live broadcast Saturday as Zhai embarked on his 15-minute space walk, witnessing the symbolic moment when he waved a Chinese flag in the weightlessness of low orbit some 340 kilometres (210 miles) above the Earth.
"It was a glorious mission, full of challenges with a perfect ending," Zhai said after being pulled out of the return capsule.
"I feel proud of the motherland."
The crew were flown to space programme headquarters in the north of Beijing where they are to undergo two weeks of preventive quarantine, Xinhua said, as they are still vulnerable to terrestrial viruses.
Coming ahead of China's October 1 National Day, the Shenzhou VII mission triggered a wave of patriotic sentiment on the Internet.
"I'm proud of the great achievement of the motherland," read a typical posting on the Sina.com website. "I'm full of confidence in the future of the motherland!"
Amid the fervour, the People's Daily suggested putting a Chinese astronaut on the moon was an achievable goal.
"We still do not have an exact timetable for a manned mission to the moon, but I believe a Chinese (astronaut) will set foot on the moon in the not too distant future," an unnamed official told the Communist Party mouthpiece.
It followed remarks Sunday by Wang Zhaoyao, spokesman for the manned space programme, who said it was "necessary" for China to put a man on the moon.
"We believe 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," he told reporters.
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.
Chinese officials -- especially those attached to the lunar programme -- have occasionally told reporters that they were targeting a manned mission to the moon.
However, authoritative documents, such as a white paper on China's space programme issued in 2006, have so far failed to mention manned lunar missions as an official objective.
Before embarking on a full-scale lunar programme, China is more likely to concentrate on the immediate goal of establishing an orbiting space lab, and upcoming Shenzhou launches will be focused on that objective.
The unmanned Shenzhou VIII will lift off in early 2009, "only months from now", an unidentified source told the China Daily.
The paper said the Shenzhou IX, also unmanned, was scheduled for next year too.
Elements of Shenzhou VIII and IX will form the basis of a space lab to be opened by the manned Shenzhou X mission, likely to take place in 2010, earlier state media reports said.
The long-term ambition is to develop a fully-fledged space station by 2020 to rival the International Space Station, a joint project involving the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada and a clutch of European countries.