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China prepares to send its first woman into space

Artistic illustration of Tiangong 1 and Shenzhou capsule in orbit. A file photo.

BEIJING (PTI): China will send its first woman into space when an airforce pilot joins a three-member team of astronauts on the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft which blasts off on Saturday.

Liu Yang, a pilot who successfully averted a mid-air accident after her flight was hit by 18 pigeons, would be part of the team that would perform China's first manned space docking, in preparation for Beijing's plan to setup a permanent space station.

"33-year-old Liu will be part of the crew of Shenzhou-9 which would be launched on Saturday form the Jiuquan space base in China's north Gobi desert," according to an announcement by China's manned space docking programme headquarters.

Liu's mission will make China the third country after Russia and the US to send a woman into space. When successful, this will be China's fourth manned space launch.

Liu and her two male colleagues Jing Haipeng and Liu Wang will dock with Tiangong-1 module currently orbiting Earth.

"From day one, I have been told I am no different from male astronauts," Liu, a trained pilot told state broadcaster CCTV.

Relatively unknown till now, Liu's selection against her rival Wang Yaping became a foregone conclusion as the official media here highlighted her heroics for the past few days.

Born in Henan province Liu, 34 enrolled into Changchun No 1 Flight College of the PLA airforce after graduating from high school and later became an Air Force cargo plane pilot.

She is married and has a child.

China has an ambitious space programme and a white paper release last December outlines the country's programme to conduct a human lunar landing.

The upgraded Long March-2F carrier rocket will be fuelled from Friday, state-run Xinhua news agency reported.

Astronauts are in good and stable condition and preparing for their space journey, it said.

A special enclosure was built for the woman astronaut to ensure privacy.

The inclusion of woman astronaut is expected to improve the Shenzhou-9 mission crew's working efficiency, said Wu Ping a spokeswoman of China's manned space program told media at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center from where the space craft would lift off.

"Generally speaking, female astronauts have better durability, psychological stability and ability to deal with loneliness," she said adding that that a manned space program without the participation of women would be incomplete.

More than 50 female astronauts from seven countries have to date served in space missions. The longest space flight by a female astronaut lasted 188 days.

The manned space docking mission, the first of its kind for China, will put astronauts, spacecraft and technologies to the test, and the results will be crucial for the future of the country's manned space programme, Wu said.

China succeeded in the automatic docking between Shenzhou-8 spacecraft and Tiangong-1 lab module last year.

A manual docking between Shenzhou-9 and Tiangong-1 will be attempted this time.

The space lab which was expected to be fully ready by 2020 was being built to rival Russia's Mir being jointly operated by Russian and American astronauts.

It will be the first time for Chinese astronauts to board an orbiting module.

Astronauts will stay 10 days in the space.

They will conduct medical experiments and tests of space station technologies in space, laying a foundation for the future long-term stay of astronauts in the space station, which will be a test for the astronauts, spacecraft and related support systems, Wu said.

The ability of Tiangong-1 space lab module to support the work and life of astronauts, the environment control, operation and performance of the docked spacecraft and lab module will be tested.

Two women American astronauts who had earlier made the historic trip into space greeted their Chinese counterpart wishing her good luck while lauding Chinese efforts pick up trained female pilots for the job.

Pamela Melroy, a former astronaut and air force pilot who served both as pilot and commander on US space shuttle missions before retiring in 2009, said, "I feel a special kinship with her, because there are so few women pilots in space."

Mae Jemison, the first African-American female astronaut, said she believes the inclusion of women in the space program is highly significant for young Chinese women.


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