China prepares to send its first woman into space
Either Wang Yaping or Liu Yang -- both advanced fighter pilots -- is set to become a heavenly heroine to a billion Chinese when one of them becomes the country's first female "taikonaut".
Wang or Liu is expected to earn a seat in the Shenzhou IX spacecraft, to be placed in orbit by a Long March rocket fired from the Jiuquan space base in the Gobi desert. State media say the launch will happen "around mid-June".
The two women, both in their 30s, appear alongside four men on the shortlist for candidates on the mission to the Tiangong-1 ("Heavenly Palace") space station.
The launch is being clouded in secrecy by Chinese authorities, but sources quoted in the official press say the crew will be made up of two men and a woman, with Liu considered the favourite.
She has "asked her parents not to speak to the media about her mission", the China Daily quoted her uncle as saying.
It will make China the third country after the Soviet Union and United States to send a woman into space using its own technology, and represent another propaganda coup for the one-party communist state.
Whoever is chosen will be lauded by her compatriots, but a week or two ago, few Chinese had heard of either woman.
According to their relatives, they were both brilliant students and have impeccable service records.
"They are selected as members of the first batch of female astronauts in China because of their excellent flight skills and psychological quality," said the official Xinhua news agency.
Photographs posted online show both women in spotless uniforms with ties in communist red, their hair parted and carefully tied behind their heads, and serious expressions.
Little is known about their personal lives, but the China Daily said female astronauts must be married and that mothers are preferred, due to fears that the potential exposure to radiation could harm their fertility.
In May 2008, Wang took part in humanitarian relief efforts after an earthquake killed tens of thousands of people in the southwestern province of Sichuan.
Three months later she was on cloud-seeding missions near the capital, tasked with ensuring rain fell far from competition sites during the Beijing Olympics.
Liu, meanwhile, has been praised for her cool handling of an incident when her jet hit a flock of pigeons but she was still able to land the heavily damaged aircraft.
The two women later joined China's training programme for "taikonauts", as the country dubs its space travellers.
"It is normal for Chinese astronauts to begin as air force pilots. All Chinese astronauts have this background," Australian space expert Morris Jones told AFP.
Their training has been accelerated, he said, to get them ready for deployment to the space station.
"China wants to show equality in its space programme," he said. "It is also investigating if women could perform better than men at some tasks in space.
"I think (their training) has probably been more intensive, and has probably omitted some non-essential parts. The women are ready to fly in space, but they have not been trained to the same level as a fully trained astronaut."
The Shenzhou ("Divine Vessel") IX mission, which will include a manual docking with the experimental Tiangong-1, is part of China's efforts to establish a permanent space station by 2020.
China's space launches are often timed to coincide with national festivals and laden with patriotism.
The latest is expected to take place 49 years after Russia's Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space, in a flight lasting from June 16 to 19, 1963.
The former textile worker was named a Hero of the Soviet Union on her return to Earth.
Beijing's first manned spaceflight was in 2003 and the astronaut involved, Yang Liwei, has been a celebrity ever since.
"I support them both," one blogger, Eason-Ming, wrote of the female candidates. "This is a page of history. We will only live better if our country becomes powerful."
(c) 2012 AFP