China will launch its Shenzhou-9 manned mission, carrying the first Chinese woman into space, on Saturday evening in a major step towards the country's plan to build its own space station by 2020.
Officials on Friday ended weeks of anticipation by confirming the timing of the launch and the identity of the female astronaut, who will be accompanied by two others on what will be China's first manned space docking mission.
The Shenzhou-9 spacecraft is scheduled to take off from the Jiuquan launch centre in the desert of north-western Gansu province at 6.37 p.m. on Saturday, officials said. The spacecraft will, during the 13-day mission, dock with the Tiangong-1, or “heavenly palace”, space laboratory module which has been in orbit since September 2011. An unmanned docking mission was carried out successfully by Shenzhou-8 in November last year.
National attention has been focused on Shenzhou-9 after officials said it would carry the country's first female astronaut into space, shortlisting two military pilots, Liu Yang and Wang Yaping.
Officials on Friday confirmed, as many had expected, that the honour would go to 33-year-old Ms. Liu, a People's Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force Major. Officials said the native of central Henan, who has been described by the media as “a quiet person who keeps a low profile”, a diligent student and a fan of volleyball, had “excelled in testing”.
“Generally speaking, female astronauts have better durability, psychological stability and ability to deal with loneliness,” Wu Ping, a spokeswoman for the manned space programme, told a press conference on Friday.
Ms. Liu will be accompanied by astronauts Liu Wang and Jing Haipeng, who will become China's first astronaut to travel into space twice.
All three astronauts are former PLA pilots.
Ms. Wu said the landmark mission will test for the first time “the training, medical monitoring, security and equipment designated for female astronauts”. Shenzhou-9 will also mark the first instance of Chinese astronauts spending more than 10 days in space, seen by analysts as a major step in China's fast-growing space programme's ambitions to conduct a lunar mission and build the country's own space station by 2020.