Major Liu Yang is expected to be selected over the other female candidate, Wang Yaping. (Internet photo)
Major Liu Yang, a 34-year-old woman from Hebei province in northern China, is expected to become the country's first female astronaut aboard the Shenzhou-9 mission later this month.
Liu has been tipped as the favorite ahead of her remaining rival, fellow air force pilot Wang Yaping. The chosen astronaut will blast off on Shenzhou-9 with two male colleagues before boarding the Tiangong-1 module which was launched into orbit last year. Captaining the mission will be 46-year-old space veteran Jing Haipeng, who was on the Shenzhou-7 mission.
"They (Liu and Wang) are selected as members of the first batch of female astronauts in China because of their excellent flight skills and psychological qualities," the official news agency Xinhua said of the two female candidates.
Liu, who has trained as an astronaut for the past three years, is a member of the Wuhan Aviation Troop. In March 2010, she was named a "hero" pilot for displaying rare calm in performing an emergency landing after it was struck by 18 pigeons. Liu goes by the name of "little flying knight" on Tencent QQ's instant message service.
The Shenzhen Special Zone Daily newspaper said Liu also has a penchant for patriotic speeches, which will not have harmed her chances of being selected. In a letter to her family after her first parachute jump, Liu said she never allowed her parents to visit her during her training because "baby eagles can never soar under their family's wing." During an English-language speech contest, Liu once said, "As a female pilot, the sacred rose garden in my heart is the motherland's blue sky," the paper added.
Pang Zhihao, a researcher at the Institute of Space Technology of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Group, believes female astronauts can adapt to the weightlessness of space better and are more psychologically stable and resistant to feelings of loneliness compared to male astronauts. There is no question that female astronauts can perform well on space missions, Pang said.
Zhang Jianqi, the former deputy commander of China's manned space program, has been quoted as saying that the selection criteria for female astronauts are similar to that used for men. The only difference, Zhang said, is that married female astronauts are preferred "because they are more mature both mentally and physically."
There have also been suggestions that only women who have had children would be accepted for astronaut training, apparently due to concerns that space travel might affect fertility. Another claim that has been made is that prospective female astronauts must not have body odor, tooth decay or scars, which might open up in space.
An official with China's space program, however, has insisted that no such requirements exist. Some media outlets have reported that Liu has a child, while others claim she had only been planning to have a child with her husband, whom she met during air force training. Liu's in-laws have been quoted as saying that they would like the couple to start having children very soon.
The Shenzhen Special Zone Daily has reported that the first launch window for Shenzhou-9 is the afternoon of June 16. The weather bureau believes there should be no impediments that would force the launch to another date or time.
This week, both women have been busy participating in rehearsals at the Jiquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China's Gansu province. Xinhua quoted a spokesperson for the space program as saying that the candidates completed a comprehensive four-hour simulation that went smoothly and satisfied the requirements of the upcoming mission.
While several news agencies have reported that Liu is almost certain to be China's first woman astronaut, sources say the official announcement will be kept a secret until the last possible moment.
Liu Yang 劉洋
Wang Yaping 王亞平
Jing Haipeng 景海鵬
Pang Zhihao 龐之浩
Zhang Jianqi 張建啟