Chinese women astronauts will soon be reaching for the stars along with their male counterparts, an official with China's space program said last night.
They will embark on a space mission no later than 2010, working as flight commanders or on-board engineers, Hu Shixiang, deputy chief commander of China's Manned Space Program, told China Daily.
The selection process, to formally start in 2006, will choose at least four women astronauts, but will not necessarily favor professional pilots, Hu said while attending a reception for three American astronauts, who arrived in Beijing last week.
This year China's air force has selected around 30 women pilots, some of whom are reportedly intended to be future astronauts.
"It is true women aviators have some advantages in terms of flight experience and physique, but we need payload experts with strong science and engineering background to do experiments in outer space," he added.
That means China will focus on women with science and education backgrounds when looking for candidates, Hu said.
The scenario contrasts with the selection of China's first group of male astronauts, including Yang Liwei, who conducted China's maiden manned space flight nearly two years ago. Yang and his 13 colleagues, all former fighter pilots, are preparing for the country's second manned space flight, scheduled for this autumn.
"The life support and environment control systems of our launch vehicles and spacecraft will allow average people, who are physically adequate and with some training, to fulfill space missions," Hu said.
In the near future, the norm will be for Chinese astronauts, men and women, to work together as partners in journeys to outer space, he said.
He did not specify what kind of missions they would conduct together.
Astronaut Yang said "it is the norm" for countries to include women in their space program. He did not elaborate.
Zhang Qingwei, president of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp, said that with the development of China's manned space program, the country will increase scientific research in orbit. Women specializing in medicine, new materials, biology and other disciplines will all have the chance to become astronauts.
Mae C Jemison, one of three visiting US astronauts, told China Daily: "China should have women astronauts as soon as possible, even earlier than next year, because you lose out on 50 percent of the talent that are available if you don't have women included."
Jemison, who became NASA's first black woman astronaut in 1987, said she had full confidence in the talent of Chinese women, not only in terms of operating space vehicles, but also in terms of designing the vehicles and understanding how space research can be most beneficial.
Jeffrey B Greene, president of the Sino-American Aviation Heritage Foundation, which hosted the US astronauts' China tour along with the Chinese Society of Astronautics, yesterday said he hoped Chinese and American crews would one day fly together in the same spacecraft for peaceful space exploration.
The astronauts' tour, lasting until August 3, was sponsored by the Du Pont China Co.
(China Daily July 26, 2005)