China’s first female astronaut and two other crew members emerged smiling from a capsule that returned safely to earth on Friday from a 13-day mission to an orbiting module that is a prototype for a future space station.

The Shenzhou 9 parachuted to a landing on the grasslands of the country’s sprawling Inner Mongolia region at about 10 a.m. (0200 GMT). China declared the first manned mission to the Tiangong 1 module a major stride ahead for the country’s ambitious space program.

About an hour later, mission commander Jing Haipeng, 45, emerged from the capsule, followed by crew mates Liu Wang, 43, and 33-year-old Liu Yang, China’s first female astronaut.

The three, all experienced Air Force pilots, were lifted on to folding chairs and appeared in good health. They smiled, waved, chatted and saluted as state television ran live footage from the landing site.

“Tiangong 1, our home in space, was comfortable and pleasant. We’re very proud of our nation,” Liu Yang told national broadcaster CCTV.

Space program commander, Gen. Chang Wanchuan, declared the astronauts in good health and declared the mission “completely successful.”

The mission had included both remote control and piloted dockings with the module and extensive medical monitoring of the astronauts as part of preparations for manning a permanent space station.

Launched on June 16 from the Jiuquan centre on the edge of the Gobi desert in northern China, Shenzhou 9 is the latest success for China’s manned space program that launched its first astronaut, Yang Liwei, into space in 2003, making China just the third nation after Russia and the U.S. to achieve that feat. China would also be the third country after the United States and Russia to send independently maintained space stations into orbit.

Keywords: Shenzhou 9Liu Yang