China on Saturday launched its most ambitious space mission to date, sending its first female astronaut into orbit and bidding to achieve the country’s first manual space docking.
Shenzhou-9 – China’s fourth manned space mission – blasted off on schedule at 6:37 pm (1037 GMT) from the remote Gobi desert in the nation’s northwest, state television pictures showed.
China has launched its first female astronaut into space in a mission to dock with the country’s orbiting space laboratory.
The Shenzhou IX rocket lifted off carrying 33 year old female astronaut Liu Yang and male astronauts Jing Haipeng and Liu Wang on 16th June 2012.
The launch was broadcast live on China Central Television.
About Liu Yang, China’s first female astronaut
Liu Yang, a female pilot, is amongst the three member crew of the Shenzhou 9 mission, the latest step in China’s increasingly ambitious space programme.
The 33-year-old major in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), earned her place in Chinese history shortly after 6.30pm on Saturday local time, when she and two other taikonauts, the Chinese word for astronauts, blasted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in northwest China aboard a Long March rocket.
Their ten day mission will see the crew carry out the first manned docking with the Tiangong-1 space lab, a vital step in China’s goal to have a working space station by 2020.
But it is the presence of Major Liu on the mission that dominated the build-up to the launch.
Formally introduced to the Chinese people at a televised press conference on Friday, Major Liu has become a national heroine. She is the 56th woman to have made the journey into space.
She is the top subject of discussion on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, with a staggering 33 million posts greeting the announcement that she was to be the first Chinese woman in space.
A communist party member known for giving rousing patriotic speeches, Major Liu has not disappointed her millions of new fans, saying at Friday’s press conference how she “yearned to gaze upon the motherland” from space.
“I am grateful to the motherland and the people. I feel honoured to fly into space on behalf of hundreds of millions of female Chinese citizens,” said Major Liu.
Married, a requirement for all of China’s female astronauts, with a passion for cooking and now resident in Beijing, Major Liu has enjoyed a dizzying rise, having only been selected to join the astronaut programme two years ago.
Born and raised in Zhengzhou, the capital of central Henan Province, her earliest ambition as a young child was to be a bus conductor.
Described as a diligent and quiet schoolgirl, she enrolled in the air force in 1997 and trained to be a transport plane pilot in Changchun, in the northeastern province of Jilin.
She demonstrated her coolness under pressure in 2003 by safely landing a plane after its right engine had been disabled when it was struck by birds soon after take-off.
Major Liu’s role will be to run the scientific experiments set be to be carried out during the mission. Shenzhou 9 is expected to dock with the experimental Tiangong-1 space lab in around two days.
It will be the fourth manned mission to be launched by China.
Major Liu and her two male companions will then spend a week aboard the cramped module.
At some point, they will disengage Shenzhou 9 from the space lab and then re-dock it manually. China must master such techniques if it is to achieve its goal of building its own space station by 2020.
A camera recorded the three astronauts in the craft before and after take-off. A red placard with the Chinese character “Fu,” a symbol for good fortune, hung above them. Liu Yang, a former China Air Force pilot, was seen smiling frequently and when a crewmate’s pen floated toward her once they were free of gravity, she volleyed it back to him. Flight leader, 46-year-old Jing Haipeng, held Liu’s hand at one point in the footage. The third crew member, 43-year-old Liu Wang, will take charge of the manual docking and the medical experiments.
The crew will stay in space for more than 10 days, during which time they will perform scientific experiments and the country’s first manual space docking — a complicated procedure that brings two vessels together in high-speed orbit.
“After docking, the astronauts will enter and live in Tiangong-1 and carry out experiments and exercises, but will dine in the spacecraft,” Wu Ping, a spokeswoman for China’s manned space program told reporters for China Daily.
The three astronauts will carry out the country’s first manned space docking mission that is an important step in the lead-up to building a space station by 2020.
Very little has been reported about Liu Yang as an individual. China society tends to be more communal and rarely celebrates the achievements of one person at the expense of the common unit.
Chang Wanquan, commander-in-chief of China’s manned space programme, said the craft had entered orbit, and declared the launch a “complete success”.
The crew was headed by Jing Haipeng, a veteran astronaut who had gone to space twice already. Liu Wang, who has been in the space programme for 14 years, will be in charge of manual docking manoeuvres.
Meanwhile Liu Yang, 33, who has created a stir in the media and online for becoming China’s first woman to travel to space, will conduct aerospace medical experiments and other space tests.
In a nod to the symbolic significance of Liu’s presence, one of the country’s most senior female leaders, State Councillor Liu Yandong, read a message of congratulation from President Hu Jintao from the launch site.
“I would like to extend warm congratulations and sincere regards to all those participating,” said Hu, adding the docking operation would mark a “major breakthrough in the country’s manned space programme”.
About the Mission
The mission will last 13 days, during which the crew will perform experiments and the manual space docking — a highly technical procedure that brings two vessels together in high speed orbit.
Successful completion of the rendezvous between the Shenzhou-9 (“Divine Vessel”) and the Tiangong-1 (“Heavenly Palace”) module already in orbit will take China a step closer to setting up its own space station in 2020.
The Asian powerhouse achieved a similar docking in November last year, but that mission was unmanned and the procedure was conducted remotely from Earth.
“The manual space rendezvous… is a huge test for astronauts’ ability to judge spatial position, eye-hand coordination and psychological abilities,” Jing told reporters ahead of the launch.
He added that the trio would work well together after months of intense training that saw them rehearse the mission some 16 hours a day.
“One glance, one facial expression, one movement… we understand each other thoroughly,” he said.
The team have rehearsed the procedure more than 1,500 times in simulations, Wu Ping, spokeswoman for China’s manned space programme, told reporters.
But more than the upcoming challenge, it is the inclusion in the crew of Liu Yang — a trained pilot and major in the People’s Liberation Army who began astronaut training two years ago — that has captivated China’s people.
China sent its first person into space in 2003 and has since conducted several manned missions, the latest in 2008, but had never yet included a woman.
What the Mission means to China
Liu’s mission made China the third country to send a woman into space using its own technology after the following:
- Soviet Union [Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova (USSR): The First Woman in Space in 1963] and
- United States [Sally Ride (USA): The First American woman in space in 1983] .
China sees its space programme as a symbol of its global stature, growing technical expertise, and the Communist Party’s success in turning around the fortunes of the once poverty-stricken nation.
An editorial in the state-run Global Times newspaper on Saturday said that China needed to “cement its strategic gains made during the years,” which called for “a stronger presence in outer space”.
“The three astronauts aboard Shenzhou-9 personify China’s long-term space aspirations,” it added.
A white paper released last December outlined China’s long-term ambitions to “conduct studies on the preliminary plan for a human lunar landing”.
The current programme aims to provide China with a space station in which a crew can live independently for several months, as at the old Russian Mir facility or the International Space Station.
The Race for Supremacy
The U.S. might have abandoned the space race, considering it a waste of money in a country running towards the edge of a fiscal cliff. But China and Russia are boldly going where few men have gone before, and even fewer women. Especially Asian women.
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