China moved a step closer to the launch of its first manned space docking mission by moving the carrier rocket of the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft into its “ready to launch” status and injecting it with propellant, State media reported on Thursday.
The much anticipated launch, which could take place as early as this weekend, has been closely followed in China with one of the three crew members set to become the first Chinese woman in space.
State media reports on Thursday suggested that the likely recipient of that honour would be 34-year-old Liu Yang, a military pilot who is one of two shortlisted candidates.
The official China Daily said Ms. Liu was “mostly likely” to become China's first woman in space, describing the native of Zhengzhou (Central Henan province) as “a quiet person who keeps a low profile.”
Ms. Liu trained in a People's Liberation Army (PLA) aviation school.
She was described as a diligent student who also played volleyball. In 2003, Ms. Liu was declared a “hero pilot” after she managed to safely land her PLA flight after it had been struck by 18 pigeons.
The other candidate was named as 32-year-old Wang Yaping, a graduate of a military academy in north-eastern Liaoning who was involved in rescue operations following the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
Besides sending the first Chinese woman into space, the launch of Shenzhou-9 — which could take place this weekend depending on weather conditions at the Jiuquan launch centre in the desert of north-western Gansu — will mark a number of other firsts for China's fast-growing space programme.
This will mark the first instance of Chinese astronauts staying in space for more than 10 days, as well as the country's first ever manned docking mission with the spacecraft set to rendezvous with the laboratory module Tiangong-1, which was put into orbit last year.
Shenzhou-8, launched in November, completed a first ever unmanned docking mission with the module.
The manned docking mission will achieve a key landmark in China's plans to build its own space station by 2020. The launch is also China's first mission to be conducted in the summer with officials expressing some concerns about the high temperatures affecting the rocket propellant. If the mercury soars on Friday and Saturday, the launch – scheduled for mid-June – could be delayed beyond the weekend, officials said.