China Launches its First Woman Astronaut Liu Yang

China sent its first female astronaut into space on a mission to manually dock the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft with an orbiting laboratory as part of the country’s plan to build a space station by 2020.

Air-force pilot Liu Yang and two male astronauts blasted off at 6:37 p.m. Beijing time yesterday from Jiuquan in the northwestern Gansu province, according to a live broadcast on China’s Central Television.

They will complete an automated docking with the Tiangong-1, or “Heavenly Palace,” laboratory module in two days and will then attempt a manual docking that is considered a major step in the space station program, the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported.

Chinese state media have lauded Liu’s accomplishments during the past week, framing her selection as part of the country’s broader push to expand its space program while other nations cut back. China aims to put a person on the moon by 2020 as well as operate a permanent manned space station.

China’s President Hu Jintao, who was visiting Denmark, sent a congratulatory letter to space program officials after the successful launch, Xinhua said.

Liu, 33, has 1,680 hours of flying time and is the deputy head of a flight unit in the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, Xinhua reported June 15. She was recruited to be a potential astronaut in 2010, the news agency said.

China sent its first man into orbit and conducted its first spacewalk decades later than the U.S. and Russia. The U.S. ended its three-decade manned space-shuttle program last year and now has no manned spaceflight capability.

International Cooperation

“China is ready to have international cooperation, including with the U.S. side, in the space program,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said June 15. “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 astronauts to the moon, setting a goal instead of making a “leap into the future” of deep-space travel.

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