China on Saturday sent its first woman into space, successfully carrying out the much-anticipated launch of the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft, which will perform the first manned docking mission and lay the ground work for plans to build a space station.

The three astronauts on board Shenzhou-9, including 33-year-old mother of one Liu Yang, were given a grand send off by top Chinese officials that was broadcast live on national television.

“The country and the people are looking forward to your successful return,” said Communist Party of China Politburo Standing Committee member Wu Bangguo, who is also the chairman of the National People's Congress (NPC) or Parliament. He was accompanied by the highest ranked woman politician, State Councilor Liu Yandong.

The Shenzhou-9 spacecraft blasted off from the Jiuquan satellite launch centre in north-western Gansu province at 6.37 p.m. Accompanying Ms. Liu Yang on the mission are two fellow People's Liberation Army (PLA) pilots, Liu Wang and Jing Haipeng, who on Saturday became China's first astronaut to travel into space twice.

State media reported Shenzhou-9 would complete an automated docking procedure in the next couple of days, following which the astronauts will “enter the space lab to carry out scientific experiments, technical tests and physical exercises”.

President Hu Jintao in a letter described the mission as a “major breakthrough” for the manned space programme. During the 13-day mission, the crew will conduct manual docking with the Tiangong-1 or “heavenly palace” space laboratory module, which has been orbiting the earth since last September.

“I am grateful to the motherland and the people. I feel honoured to fly into space on behalf of hundreds of millions of Chinese females,” Ms. Liu said.