BEIJING, China (CNN) -- A Chinese astronaut has completed his country's first-ever spacewalk as part of an ambitious program that is starting to rival the United States and Russia in its rapid expansion.
Zhai Zhigang waved to an external camera as he emerged from the hatch of the Shenzhou-7 spaceship on Saturday.
He later held a small Chinese flag, waving it in space.
Zhai returned to the interior of his capsule and closed the hatch after less than 20 minutes outside.
State broadcaster CCTV showed live images of Zhigang as he floated out of the orbiter module's hatch. "Greetings to all the people of the nation and all the people of the world," The Associated Press quoted him as saying.
Fellow astronaut Liu Boming also emerged briefly from the capsule to hand Zhai the Chinese flag. The third crew member, Jing Haipeng, monitored the ship from inside the re-entry module.
The three-man crew launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northern China's Inner Mongolia Thursday for a three-day mission, the highlight of which was Saturday's spacewalk.
The spacewalk paves the way for assembling a space station from two Shenzhou orbital modules, the next major goal of China's manned spaceflight program.
China became the third country to send people into space in 2003, when military pilot Yang Liwei circled the earth for 21 hours.
Its second mission -- in 2005 -- had two crew members and lasted five days.
The latest mission has dominated front pages of China's state-controlled media, knocking aside coverage of China's continuing scandal involving contaminated milk.