* Female fighter pilot to be first Chinese woman in space
* Launch from Gobi Desert base set for early Saturday
* Mission is latest step towards eventual Chinese space
By Maxim Duncan
JIUQUAN, China, June 15 China will send its
first woman into outer space this week, prompting a surge of
national pride as the rising power takes its latest step towards
putting a space station in orbit within the decade.
Liu Yang, a 33-year-old fighter pilot, will join two other
astronauts aboard the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft when it lifts off
from a remote Gobi Desert launch site on Saturday evening.
They will attempt a manned docking for the first time with
the Tiangong (Heavenly Palace) 1 module, launched last September
and part of China's exploratory preparations for a space lab.
Rendez-vous and docking exercises between the two vessels
will be an important hurdle in China's efforts to acquire the
technological and logistical skills needed to run a full space
lab that can house astronauts for long stretches.
Beijing is still far from catching up with the established
space superpowers: the United States and Russia. The Tiangong 1
is a trial module, not the building block of a space station.
But the docking mission will be the latest show of China's
growing prowess in space, alongside its growing military and
diplomatic presence, and comes while budget restraints and
shifting priorities have held back U.S. manned space launches.
Speaking to the official Xinhua news agency, Liu said she
"yearns to experience the wondrous, weightless environment of
space, see the Earth and gaze upon the motherland".
"Thank you for the confidence put in my by the motherland
and the people, for giving me this chance to represent China's
millions of women by going into space," Liu later told reporters
at the Jiuquan launch centre.
Medical experts who helped select the crew of the Shenzhou
9, have said that female astronauts must meet the same criteria
as men, and then some, according to the China Daily.
Female Chinese astronauts must be married and preferably be
mothers, the newspaper said, citing concerns that radiation
would "harm their fertility".
Liu, from the poor and populous central province of Henan,
has been praised in state media for her nerves of steel after
safely landing her fighter jet after a bird strike that left the
cockpit glass covered with blood.
China's latest space mission has attracted even more than
the usual national attention thanks to Liu's presence.
Her selection to the mission team rapidly became the top
subject on the country's Twitter-like microblogging service Sina
Weibo, with 33 million posts.
"Liu Yang, on the eve of becoming our first woman is space,
is the pride of Henan," wrote one user.
But others wondered if the money poured into space ambitions
would be better used on Earth, where China is still a developing
country and grappling with more mundane issues like food safety
and a growing rich-poor divide.
"What use does Shenzhou 9 have? Will it help the people to
not starve?" another user wrote.
(Additional reporting by Michael Martina, Ben Blanchard and
Sabrina Mao in Beijing; Editing by Ron Popeski)