China put its first woman into orbit today, one of three astronauts to attempt a critical space docking in the latest challenge for the country’s ambitious space program.
A Long March rocket blasted off in the early evening from the remote Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the northwestern Gobi Desert, carrying with it the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft and the three astronauts, including 33-year-old female fighter pilot Liu Yang.
This is China’s fourth manned space mission since 2003 when astronaut Yang Liwei became the country’s first person in orbit, and comes as the United States has curtailed manned launches over budget concerns and changing priorities.
The launch was carried live on state television, and until moments before blast-off, a camera showed the three astronauts in the cabin occasionally waving. A red placard with the Chinese symbol for good fortune hung behind them.
Within days, the astronauts will try to dock with the orbiting Tiangong (Heavenly Palace) 1 module launched last September, part of a 13-day mission crucial to China’s ambition to put a space station in orbit around 2020.
A successful manned docking mission for China would be the latest show of the country’s growing capabilities in space, to match its expanding military and diplomatic clout.
Still, Beijing is playing catch up with the United States and Russia, which, along with other countries, jointly operate the International Space Station some 240 miles above Earth.