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China prepares for launch, names female astronaut

People's Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force fighter pilot Liu Yang, as seen in March 2010, will be China's first woman in space.

Story highlights

  • Liu Yang wins coveted spot to be China's first woman in space
  • Launch time is set for 6:37 p.m. local time in northwest Gansu's province
  • China aims to be third nation to perform a space docking
  • China aspires to build a space station and conduct manned mission to the moon

China will launch its historic space docking mission Saturday along with its first female astronaut in space.

Liu Yang has been selected to join two male astronauts, Jing Haipeng and Liu Wang, as part of a three-person crew aboard the Shenzhou-9, according to China's manned space docking program, which says the mission will last 10 days.

A launch time is set for 6:37 p.m. local time (6:37 a.m. ET) at a satellite center in northwestern Gansu province.

The carrier rocket, the Long March-2F, was scheduled to start fueling Friday afternoon, and the launch ground and control systems are ready, state media reported.

Echoing a famous Chinese proverb, Wu Ping, a spokeswoman for China's manned space program said, "Women hold up half the sky. Human space missions without women are incomplete."

Chinese women push for a place in space

    According to Xinhua, Liu, 33, was the deputy head of a flight unit of the PLA's Air Force and an air force major. She is also a veteran pilot with 1,680 hours of flying experience and, after two years of training, excelled in testing before being selected with another female, Wang Yaping, as a candidate for the crew.

    The Shenzhou-9 spacecraft and its carrier rocket as seen Saturday in northwest China's Gansu province.

    On the eve of the mission, however, it was Liu who won the coveted spot.

    Wu said that the participation of women in space will aid training, improve flight crew equipment and expand knowledge on the physical and psychological effects of space on women. "It will also further expand the social impact of human space missions and showcase the positive image of Chinese women," Wu said. "As a woman, I am eagerly looking forward to this flight with a female astronaut."

    In another milestone, Jing will be China's first astronaut to travel twice into space, Xinhua reported. Like his other two crewmembers, Jing is a former pilot of the People's Liberation Army and a member of the Communist Party of China, according to Xinhua.

    If all goes well, the Shenzhou-9 will dock with China's orbiting space laboratory, making the nation the third after the United States and Russia to complete a manned space docking.

    As a precaution in case of an emergency, one of the crewmembers will not board the lab, the space program said in February.

    China has big aspirations for its program and hopes to build a space station and conduct a manned mission to the moon.

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    The orbiting Tiangong-1 space lab module was launched into space in September, and two months later it successfully completed China's first space docking with an unmanned spacecraft, Shenzhou-8, according to Xinhua news agency.

    The efforts demonstrate "China's continued commitment to becoming a first-class space power with an independent space capability," Taylor Fravel, associate professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said this year. "This is a very exclusive club."

    China's efforts come as the United States refocuses its space program toward deep space exploration, and private companies such as SpaceX make strides toward the commercialization of spaceflight.

    Last month, SpaceX's unmanned Dragon capsule completed the first commercial mission to the International Space Station.