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China puts its first woman astronaut into orbit

posted 16 Jun 2012, 08:04 by Sam Mbale   [ updated 16 Jun 2012, 08:04 ]

China launches a spacecraft and puts its first female astronaut into orbit as the country takes its latest step towards building a space station within the decade.

China launched the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft on Saturday (June 16) in its first attempt at a manned space docking mission, the latest feat for the country's growing space programme that also lifted its first female astronaut into orbit.
The spacecraft blasted off at 6:37 pm local time (1037 GMT) from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in China's northwestern Gobi Desert, carrying with it three astronauts - including the 33-year-old People's Liberation Army (PLA) Major Liu Yang, China's first female astronaut -- up for a space voyage.

The astronauts will try to dock with the orbiting Tiangong 1 space lab module as part of a 13 day mission that is a crucial step in China's ambition to create an orbiting outpost to secure its presence in space.

The launch marks China's fourth manned space mission since 2003, when astronaut Yang Liwei orbited Earth 14 times, becoming the country's first person in space.

Beijing is playing catch up with space superpowers the United States and Russia, which along with other countries, jointly operate the 400 tonne International Space Station.

China's Tiangong 1, launched in September 2011, is a trial module, not the full-fledged space station China hopes to have in place by about 2020.

Nonetheless, China's recent forays into space come as the United States has scaled back manned space operations in the face of budget constraints and shifting priorities.

Chang Wanquan, director of the PLA General Armaments Department announced the launch a "complete success".

"According to the report by the Beijing Aerospace Control Centre, Shenzhou 9 spacecraft has entered the designated orbit, and the crew are in very good condition. I now declare the launch of Shenzhou 9 spacecraft a complete success," Chang told cheering engineers and officials at the control centre.

A successful docking mission for China would be the latest show of the country's ascendancy in space, to match its expanding military and diplomatic clout.

The launch was broadcast live by state television CCTV, and many residents gathered in front of a big screen in downtown Beijing to watch the spectacle.

Many said they felt especially proud of Liu Yang, China's first female astronaut sent into space.

"China may be lagging behind in certain civilian technologies, but it has been catching up fast in some core industries. I feel proud as a Chinese citizen," said 29-year-old Beijing resident He Jing.

"As a woman, I am very proud that there is a female astronaut going into space. Only men were sent to space before, but now there is a woman there," said 26-year-old Yan Wenjing.

Fears of a space arms race with the United States and other powers mounted after China blew up one of its own weather satellites with a ground-based missile in January 2007, though China has insisted its programme is peaceful.

Chinese scientists have spoken of the possibility of sending a man to the moon after 2020, the final step in a three-stage moon plan, which includes the deployment of a moon rover in 2013 and the retrieval of lunar soil and stone samples around 2017.