JIUQUAN, China (AP) — China will send its first woman and two other astronauts into space Saturday to work on a temporary space station for about a week, in a key step toward becoming only the third nation to set up a permanent base in orbit.
Liu Yang, a 34-year-old air force pilot, and two male colleagues will be launched Saturday aboard the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft, which will dock with the bus-sized Tiangong 1 space module now orbiting at 343 kilometers (213 miles) above the Earth.
"Arranging for women astronauts to fly is not only a must for the development of human spaceflight, but also the expectation of the public," space program spokeswoman Wu Ping said. "This is a landmark event."
Two of the astronauts will live and work inside the module to test its life-support systems while the third will remain in the capsule to deal with any unexpected emergencies. Wu said the mission will last more than 10 days before the astronauts return to Earth in the capsule, landing on Western Chinese grasslands with the help of parachutes.
The rocket began fueling Friday at the Jiugquan Satellite Launch Center on the edge of the Gobi desert in northern China, Wu told reporters at the center. The launch is scheduled for 6:37 p.m. (1237 GMT) Saturday, she said.
Joining Liu, a major, is veteran astronaut and mission commander Jing Haipeng and newcomer Liu Wang, both air force senior colonels.
"You could say this mission is a combination of the old and the new and coordination between the male and female," Wu said.
Success in docking — and in living and working aboard the Tiangong 1 — would smooth the way for more ambitious projects, including the creation of a permanent space station and missions to the moon, and add to China's prestige in line with its growing economic prowess.
China is hoping to join the United States and Russia as the only countries to have sent independently maintained space stations into orbit. It already is in the exclusive three-nation club to have launched a spacecraft with astronauts on its own.
The mission demonstrates China's commitment to "long-term human spaceflight" and marks a test of "the technological capabilities requisite for a future permanent space station," said Joan Johnson-Freese, an expert on the Chinese space program at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island.
Still, that is some years away. The Tiangong 1 is only a prototype, and the plan is to replace it with a permanent — and bigger — space station due for completion around 2020.