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China Chooses Liberation Army Pilot as First Woman Astronaut

Chinese Astronaut Liu Yang
Chinese first woman astronaut Liu Yang salutes as she was introduced during a press conference at the Jiuquan space base, north China's Gansu province on June 15, 2012. Source: AFP/GettyImages

China picked People’s Liberation Army pilot Liu Yang as its first female astronaut, tapping a woman hailed as a hero for performing an emergency landing after her plane struck a flock of birds.

Liu will be one of three astronauts aboard the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft when it blasts off tomorrow ahead of the country’s first manned orbital docking with the Tiangong-1, or “Heavenly Palace” module, the Xinhua News Agency reported. She was chosen over another female candidate, Wang Yaping.

Chinese state media have touted Liu’s accomplishments over the last week, framing her selection as part of the country’s broader push to expand its space program while those of other countries have contracted. Tomorrow’s launch may bring China a step closer to its goal of operating a permanent manned space station and putting a person on the moon by 2020.

“I am grateful to the motherland and the people,” Liu told a media briefing today, according to Xinhua. “I feel honored to fly into space on behalf of hundreds of millions of female Chinese citizens.”

Under the headline “Female astronaut was a hero pilot,” the state-run China Daily newspaper reported on June 11 how Liu had “successfully dealt with a mid-air emergency” after her plane hit 18 pigeons, splattering the windshield with blood and filling the cockpit with a “burning smell.”

“In China, pilots with the experience of dealing with emergencies are preferred for astronaut selection,” the newspaper said. China Daily said Liu is 34 years old, while Xinhua said she is 33.

Space Module

In case of emergency after the launch, one of the astronauts will stay aboard the Shenzhou-9 while the other two enter the space module, Xinhua reported June 9. Chinese state media didn’t say if Liu would remain on the craft or go into the orbiter.

Selection requirements demand that the female astronaut be married and have given birth, according to a story in the newspaper of the Shaanxi Province Communist Party committee. She also must have no scars, bad breath or tooth decay, the newspaper said.

“Female astronauts are more sensitive and better at communication, which will be beneficial in long, arduous spaceflights,” the Global Times said this week, quoting Pang Zhihai, managing editor of Space International.

‘Rose Garden’

In a 2002 profile of Liu, the People’s Liberation Army Daily reported that Liu had studied English and computers as well as flying. It said that she wrote a poem for an English contest that included the line: “As a female pilot, the motherland’s blue sky is my sacred rose garden.”

Xinhua reported that Liu has 1,680 hours of flying time and is the deputy head of a flight unit of the PLA’s Air Force. She was recruited to be a potential astronaut in 2010, Xinhua said.

China sent its first man into orbit and conducted its first spacewalk decades later than the U.S. and Russia. The Global Times article said China’s manned station would become operational when other space stations are likely to shut down, “possibly leaving China as the only country with a space station.”

“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 today. “The achievement China has made in its space program is the result of the Chinese people’s hard work and innovation.”

The U.S. plans to operate the International Space Station, a research laboratory that orbits about 240 miles above Earth, through 2020. In 2010, President Barack Obama scrapped plans to return to the moon, setting a goal instead of making a “leap into the future” of deep-space travel. The U.S. ended its space shuttle program last year.

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