Chinese test patience of U.S., launch first woman into space
China launched its most ambitious space mission yet on Saturday, carrying its first female astronaut and two male colleagues in an attempt to dock with an orbiting module and work on board for more than a week.
Chinese officials on Saturday launched their first female astronaut into space, a record breaking feat for the country, said Chinese officials.
The launch, which took place Saturday, introduced to the country People’s Liberation Army pilot Liu Yang as its first female astronaut, a woman hailed as a hero for performing an emergency landing after her plane struck a flock of birds.
Known as Taikonauts in China, Liu and her male traveling companions began a 13-day mission to rendezvous with the country’s Tiangong-1 space station module. The shuttle launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on the edge of the Gobi Desert, and the team of taikonauts is set to dock with a prototype space lab, a key step toward building a permanent space station.
In a statement released Saturday, Liu said that she is grateful for the opportunity to represent her country and that the mission is a major step forward for the Chinese space program.
“I am grateful to the motherland and the people,” Liu told a media briefing. “I feel honored to fly into space on behalf of hundreds of millions of female Chinese citizens.”
The China National Space Administration (CNSA) has now sent eight astronauts into space, including two-time space traveler Jing Haipeng, who is currently stationed on Shenzhou-9 with Liu Yang and Liu Wang, the third member of the crew.
The launch was televised in China by state-run CCTV. Speaking Saturday, announcers said the mission should be considered a success and that China would continue to take steps in the coming months and years towards furthering its presence in space.
“China is ready to have international cooperation including with the U.S. side in the space program, on the basis of equality and mutual respect,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said in statement. “The achievement China has made in its space program is the result of the Chinese people’s hard work and innovation.”
The 9.4-ton Tiangong-1 module, launched and placed in orbit last September, is not a fully developed space station but rather a testing platform for rendezvous and docking missions similar to the one Shenzhou-9 is currently slated to accomplish. The prototype is seen as a key step for the Chinese space program, which is likely to adjust its focus in the coming months towards building a fully functional space station.
Speaking Saturday, Chinese space officials say that the mission will provide further insight into how to best complete the coming steps required to begin building a space station.
“The Shenzhou-9 will perform our country’s first manned space docking mission with the orbiting Tiangong-1 space lab module,” said Zhou Jianping, chief designer of CNSA’s manned space program, a few days before Saturday’s launch. “It means China’s spacecraft will become a genuine manned shuttle tool between space and Earth. It can send human beings to space stations or space labs. This will be a significant step in China’s manned space flight history.”
The two men on the mission, both of whom are senior colonels in China’s air force, have received far less of the spotlight. The commander is Jing Haipeng, a veteran astronaut, while the third crew member Liu Wang.
The mission will include a number of tests related to the operational capacity of the space station. Two of the astronauts will live and work inside the module to test its life-support systems while the third will remain in the capsule to deal with any unexpected emergencies.
China is hoping to join the United States and Russia as the only countries to send independently maintained space stations into orbit. It is already one of just three nations to have launched manned spacecraft on their own.
U.S. officials have yet to comment on Saturday’s launch, however, they have expressed concerns in the past over China’s growing interest in space exploration.
Saturday’s mission is just the latest in a series of recent launches in recent months. Already China is planning another manned mission to the module, which is slated to take place later this year. Possible future missions could include sending a man to the moon.
The space program is a source of enormous national pride for China, reflecting its rapid economic and technological progress and ambition to rank among the world’s leading nations. The selection of the first female astronaut is giving the program an additional publicity boost. China has only limited cooperation in space with other nations and its exclusion from the International Space Station.
China first launched a man into space in 2003 followed by a two-man mission in 2005 and a three-man trip in 2008 that featured the country’s first space walk.
The crew is expected to work for one week before returning to Earth.