The space shuttle Shenzhou 9 is ready for liftoff. And for the first time in the history of Chinese space flight, it will be transporting a female astronaut into space. Beijing is cashing in on its promotional value.
The Shenzhou-9, which means "divine vessel," is due to be launched into space on Saturday from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in China’s arid northwest. It will then dock with the space module Tiangong 1 ("heavenly palace"), which was launched last year.
This will be China's first docking maneuver with the module and a manned ship; but that is not the only reason this flight will be novel. It’s the first time, China is sending a woman into space.
Officials named the "A team" on Friday and confirmed 34-year-old Liu Yang as part of the crew. Married with no children, she is a former Chinese air force pilot. She was selected at the beginning of 2010 as a candidate for the space program and was then trained.
No scars, nor cavities
Chinese media have been reporting on the strict selection criteria used in choosing female astronauts. Apparently candidates were not allowed to have any scars or dental cavities. Thick calluses on the feet are also said to be grounds for exclusion from the selection process.
Yang Liwei is a national hero
In total, 56 female astronauts have been sent into space so far; 46 from the US, three from the former USSR, as well as three Russians, two Canadians and two Japanese.
Bernd Dachwald, a space flight expert at the University of Applied Sciences in Aachen, told DW that women faced the same challenges as men when it came to space travel and that there should be no special criteria.
"The Americans put women into space all the time. They have almost as many female as male astronauts on their crews," he said, adding that the only real difference was the hormonal fluctuations caused by the menstrual cycle.
Reinhold Ewald, who travelled to space in a Russian Soyuz craft in 1997, agreed that out there women and men were absolutely equal.
For many Chinese, having a woman on board the "divine vessel" is a symbolic victory for female emancipation.
Each space flight achievement is celebrated with great pomp by the government, which attributes these successes to the Communist Party's leadership. The People's Republic began to develop its manned spaceflight program in 1990, making clear its aim to become an important global power in space.
Yang Liwei became the first Chinese astronaut to travel to space in October 2003 and was celebrated as a national hero.
Thus China was the third country - after the US and the former USSR - to master the science of manned space flight.
China has since continued its ambitious program, and Zhai Zhigang's first walk in space outside of a capsule was also a great success.
Zhai Zhigang was the first Chinese astronaut to walk in space
Space engineering as advertizing
The German astronaut Reinhold Ewald said it was clear China wants to be on par with the US and Russia in space technology.
"We have warmly welcomed our Chinese counterparts and have accepted them into the circle of astronauts and cosmonauts," he said. "There is even an organization for space travelers and there are Chinese members. We see them as equals."
For his part, Dachwald said that China was using its costly space travel program to promote Chinese technology. "If you can show that you’ve mastered space technology, other technologies that have nothing at all to do with space can be sold more easily on the global market."
China's next ambitious goal is to build a manned space station by 2020.
Autor: Yuhan Zhu / sb
Editor: Anne Thomas