June 15, 2012
China will send its first woman into outer space this week, prompting a surge of national pride as the rising power takes its latest step towards putting a space station in orbit within the decade.
Liu Yang, a 33-year-old fighter pilot, will join two other astronauts aboard the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft when it lifts off from a remote Gobi Desert launch site on Saturday evening.
They will attempt a manned docking for the first time with the Tiangong (Heavenly Palace) 1 module, launched last September and part of China’s exploratory preparations for a space lab.
Rendezvous and docking exercises between the two vessels will be an important hurdle in China’s efforts to acquire the technological and logistical skills needed to run a full space lab that can house astronauts for long stretches.
Beijing is still far from catching up with the established space superpowers: the United States and Russia. The Tiangong 1 is a trial module, not the building block of a space station.
But the docking mission will be the latest show of China’s growing prowess in space, alongside its growing military and diplomatic presence, and comes while budget restraints and shifting priorities have held back U.S. manned space launches.
Speaking to the official Xinhua news agency, Liu said she “yearns to experience the wondrous, weightless environment of space, see the Earth and gaze upon the motherland”.
“Thank you for the confidence put in my by the motherland and the people, for giving me this chance to represent China’s millions of women by going into space,” Liu later told reporters at the Jiuquan launch centre.
Medical experts who helped select the crew of the Shenzhou 9, have said that female astronauts must meet the same criteria as men, and then some, according to the China Daily.