Sunday, June 17, 2012

China's first woman astronaut takes the spotlight

China is sending its first woman into outer space this weekend, prompting a surge of national pride as the rising power takes another step toward 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 (6:37 p.m. Beijing time, 6:37 a.m. ET).

They will attempt a crew-controlled docking for the first time with the uncrewed Tiangong 1 module, which was 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.

China's aspirations
In preparation for the crewed mission, China launched a robotic Shenzhou 8 module that successfully performed a remote-controlled docking with Tiangong 1 ("Heavenly Palace") last November. Space program spokeswoman Wu Ping told reporters that Shenzhou 9 would make two dockings with Tiangong 1 ? the first by remote control, and the second under manual control.

"After we have realized both the auto and manual docking technology, we can completely master this technology," she said.

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. launches of astronauts.

The mission demonstrates China's commitment to "long-term human spaceflight" and marks a test of "the technological capabilities requisite for a future permanent space station," said Joan Johnson-Freese, an expert on the Chinese space program at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island.

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Focus on the female
Workers at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center began fueling the mission's Long March 2F rocket on Friday, but on the eve of liftoff, the international spotlight was focused on the woman spaceflier rather than the rocket she would ride.

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 launch center.

Medical experts who helped select Shenzhou 9's crew have said that female astronauts must meet the same criteria as men, and then some, according to the China Daily. Female Chinese astronauts must be married and preferably be mothers, the newspaper said, citing concerns that radiation would "harm their fertility" and thus their prospects for future children.

Liu, from the poor and populous central province of Henan, has been praised in state media for her nerves of steel. Multiple media outlets told how Liu safely landed her fighter jet after a bird strike that left the cockpit glass covered with blood.

Pros and cons voiced online
China's latest space mission has attracted even more than the usual national attention, thanks to Liu's presence. Her selection to the mission team rapidly became the top subject on the country's Twitter-like microblogging service Sina Weibo, with 33 million posts.

"Liu Yang, on the eve of becoming our first woman is space, is the pride of Henan," wrote one user.

But some wondered if the money poured into space ambitions would be better used on Earth, where China is still a developing country and grappling with more mundane issues like food safety and a growing rich-poor divide. "What use does Shenzhou 9 have? Will it help the people to not starve?" another Weibo user wrote.

The two men on the mission, who are both senior colonels in China's air force, have gotten far less of the spotlight: The commander is Jing Haipeng, a veteran astronaut. The third crew member is space rookie Liu Wang.

"You could say this mission is a combination of the old and the new, and coordination between the male and female," said Wu Ping, the space program spokeswoman.

Wu said the launch of the first Chinese woman into space will be a "landmark event."

"Arranging for women astronauts to fly is not only a must for the development of human spaceflight, but also the expectation of the public," she said.

Additional reporting by Reuters' Michael Martina, Ben Blanchard and Sabrina Mao in Beijing. This report also includes information from and The Associated Press.

Copyright 2012 Thomson Reuters. Click for restrictions.

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