The high mountains that surrounded his village could never block Pan Chaoyong's wonder about a "divine vessel" that was flying 343 km above the earth.
The 30-year-old Dong ethnic minority in southwest China's Guizhou Province became curious about the interior design of Shenzhou-7 after he watched the launch of the country's third manned spacecraft on TV Thursday evening.
"I wish I could be in space someday, " the man said.
As taikonaut Zhai Zhigang floated out of the Shenzhou, or Divined Vessel, spacecraft, Saturday afternoon, millions of his countrymen like Pan held their breath when watching the live broadcast of China's first-ever spacewalk, a major breakthrough of the nation's ambitious manned space program.
While more than half of Chinese households had tuned in to the live telecast of Shenzhou-7's launch on Thursday, a larger audience was expected for the Saturday climax of the mission, according to an AGB Nielsen Media Research survey.
"It was all quiet but thrilling. We're witnessing history," said Shanghai-based computer technician Qu Yin after watching live broadcast of the spacewalk on television.
"I really wanted to cry when I saw the national flag Zhai waved in space and the red characters 'Feitian' on the homemade spacesuit he wore. I don't know why. They were distant but looked so close."
Many others even followed the spacecraft by car, like 42-year-old Kou Wen and other 12 astronomic buffs. They drove from Beijing to the neighboring Hebei Province to observe Shenzhou-7 on Thursday when it was launched, but missed it because of thick clouds. They made another futile attempt in suburb Beijing on Friday but decided to continue the effort Saturday night.
"It's like chasing the sun," Kou told Xinhua, beaming. "We will do it even if there is only a glimmer of hope, because this is a big thing for our country. It's different."
The group had organized observation of the previous three Shenzhou spacecraft. China launched the first Shenzhou spaceship in 1999 and the first manned one in 2003. Two flew in 2005.
China's manned space project has greatly boosted the Chinese people's fervor for astronomy, which has been the top interest of science readers for the past two years in a survey by the Chinese edition of European science magazine Science & Vie, said the magazine's chief editor Yan Feng.
"I used to be lonely as a space fan. The telescopes were poor and light and air pollution was bad," 44-year-old Yan recalled. "Now the fan group is much bigger. My facilities can almost rival those in foreign countries, for instance I have a global positioning system installed to my telescope."
With its economy forging ahead since the country adopted the reform and opening up policy 30 years ago, China's ambition in space exploration grew as it announced plans to eventually set up a permanent space station and launched its first lunar probe last year.
Although China's paces in space still lagged behind Russia and the United States, they meant a lot to the Chinese people as a sign of national strength, said Liu Cixin, who works as an engineer in a power plant in north China's Shanxi Province and writes the country's best selling science-fictions.
China has stated its space exploration is aimed at peaceful utilization and development of space resources.
Despite the pragmatism, Liu believed China's space program can let more and more ordinary Chinese cast their eyes into the deep universe out of pure curiosity or care for the humankind.
"The country's breakthrough in space has a more profound effect on the minds of the Chinese people than instant tangible benefits, just like the navigators in the 15th and 16th centuries who set sails looking for spice and gold but led to the merging of different continents," said Liu.
Meng Qingbin, a 25-year-old college student in Beijing, exulted in the moment when Zhai opened the hatch door and sun light was let into the module.
"The light was beautiful. I felt like being reborn as if I had slipped out into space myself," said Meng after watching the live telecast.
For professor Wu Yan at the Beijing Normal University, China's space walk crowned the country's efforts to liberate Chinese people from poverty and backwardness.
"We have been laboring on the earth for such a long time, but now we are flying in space," said Wu. "We'll not only stretch our body in the universe but also open up our mind."
(Xinhua News Agency September 28, 2008)