Chinese women could be in space by 2012

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China’s female astronauts could fly into space as soon as the latter half of next year, said a senior official in charge of the manned space program on Friday.

According to the program schedule, a space module Tiangong-1 and the Shenzhou VIII spacecraft will be launched in the latter half of this year in the first unmanned rendezvous and docking mission.

Yang Liwei, deputy director of China Manned Space Engineering Office and also China’s first astronaut in space, said that next year China will launch two spacecraft to further improve China’s rendezvous and docking technologies and one of the spacecraft will be manned.

"Two to three astronauts will be sent to space in that mission next year,” he said, without elaborating.

Fei Junlong, leader of China’s astronaut team, told reporters that the two women astronauts and five men astronauts – the second batch of Chinese astronauts selected last year – have to take a three-year training course before carrying out space missions.

But Yang said that there are possibilities for women to join next year’s mission.

The two women astronauts, both pilots from the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force, are the first women astronauts in China.

Before the current group of astronauts were selected, the 14 astronauts recruited in 1997 were all men, including Yang and Fei. So far, six of them have flown to space in three different missions.

Yang and Fei, as well as Chen Shanguang, director of the Astronaut Center of China, introduced China’s manned space programs to 56 overseas reporters on Friday at the “space town” in the northern Beijing suburb, where astronauts are trained.

Reporters were also shown three spacecraft simulators built for astronaut training, including that of Tiangong-1.

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