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Two women among finalists for China's next spaceflight

Posted: November 6, 2011

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Two female astronauts are among the candidates to fly on China's upcoming human space mission, which could attempt a manual docking with a bus-sized orbital laboratory next year, according to Chinese media.

A Shenzhou spacecraft like the one pictured here can accommodate up to three astronauts. Credit: China Manned Space Engineering Office
The female astronauts, both cargo airplane pilots, are among nine finalists for one or two crewed flights in 2012, China's state-run Xinhua news agency reported at the end of October.

Xinhua quoted Chen Shanguang, director of the Astronaut Center of China, as saying China must assess both males and females on missions in order to advance its space progam.

"Space exploration activities would be incomplete without the participation of female astronauts," Chen said, according to Xinhua.

The former Soviet Union flew Valentina Tereshkova, a female cosmonaut, in 1963. The first U.S. woman astronaut was Sally Ride, who flew on the space shuttle in 1983.

Xinhua reported both Chinese female astronauts are married and around 30 years old, but official sources did not disclose their names.

Wu Ping, a spokeswoman for the China Manned Space Engineering Office, said nine astronauts are in training for one or two missions next year. The preparation includes training for a manual docking with the Tiangong 1 laboratory module, a 34-foot-long, 19,000-pound spacecraft designed as a prototype for a future Chinese space station.

The unmanned Shenzhou 8 spaceship automatically docked with Tiangong 1 on Wednesday, achieving a significant milestone paving the way for at least one manned flight next year.

Chinese officials previously said they plan two Shenzhou missions in 2012, and one or both of the flights would carry a crew, depending on the outcome of this month's Shenzhou 8 mission. Both Shenzhou craft would dock with Tiangong 1.

Shenzhou 8 will separate from Tiangong 1 around Nov. 14 and begin a second approach to the module for a docking in daylight. Last week's historic automatic docking occurred on the night side of the craft's orbit to avoid interference from sunlight.

Assuming the daytime docking demo goes well, Shenzhou 8 will ultimately undock from Tiangong 1 and parachute back to Earth on the evening of Nov. 17, Chinese time, according to Wu.

Shenzhou 9 will launch in the first half of 2012, followed by the Shenzhou 9 flight later in the year.

The Shenzhou spacecraft can accommodate up to three astronauts.

Xinhua reported the nine astronauts being considered for flights next year include Yang Liwei, China's first astronaut, and Zhai Zhigang, China's first spacewalker.

China has flown three manned Shenzhou craft, including Yang's 21-hour solo flight in 2003, a two-person mission lasting nearly five days in 2005, and a three-man sortie in 2008 that conducted the country's first spacewalk.

Tiangong 1 launched Sept. 29 and is designed to stay in orbit for two years to receive visiting Shenzhou spacecraft. When docked together, Tiangong 1 and a Shenzhou capsule form a single vehicle extending more than 60 feet long.