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Why is China sending a woman into space?
by Tony Quine
Isle of Man UK (SPX) Jun 01, 2012

illustration only

"China's first female astronauts have, trained hard and conscientiously, and are now ready to take part in the Shenzhou manned spaceflights. For all astronauts the implementation of a manned spaceflight is our primary duty. They are both now ready to accept selection, by the motherland, and the Chinese people, at any moment." This was according to Major General Fei Junlong, commander of the twenty-one person Chinese astronaut team, speaking in January.

However, the decision to include a woman in next month's Shenzhou 9 crew has surprised and intrigued Western observers. China's manned space programme is progressing at a modest pace and the imminent Shenzhou 9 mission will be only the fourth manned flight in nearly nine years.

If the launch goes well Shenzhou 9 will dock with the orbiting Tiangong 1 module, and the three person crew will go inside for a ten day stay. It is an ambitious and complex mission, which will need a well prepared, well trained and courageous crew.

China's only female taikonauts, Liu Yang and Wang Yaping only reported to the Astronaut Training Centre in May 2010, two months after being selected.

In contrast, the seven men in the training group have all been preparing for spaceflight since 1998 and were previously fighter pilots, whilst Liu and Wang were plucked from the more sedate world of turbo-prop transports. They are however, both military officers.

Whilst China reveals little detail about its training regime, it seems unlikely that basic training could be completed in less than 12-18 months. So it appears that both women must have transferred to advanced training for the Shenzhou 9 and Shenzhou 10 (due next year) docking missions, almost immediately.

So, why the apparent urgency to send an inexperienced woman into orbit, on this high profile flight?

Perhaps there has simply been political pressure to send a woman into orbit? Women's Groups in China have been lobbying for a woman in space since 2004.

Perhaps the Chinese are seeking early comparative data on women's performance in space, ahead of longer or more ambitious flights, in the future?

Although both are military pilots, it seems unlikely that the chosen woman will actual fly Shenzhou. Maybe part of their role is to demonstrate that the third seat on Shenzhou can be occupied by an adequately prepared passenger or researcher.

Possibly the Chinese want to demonstrate an ability to select, train and launch a taikonaut in only two years, as a precursor to Tiangong 2 and 3 missions, later in the decade, when they will wish to send engineers, scientists and, maybe, doctors into orbit, perhaps without taking them from their mainstream careers for many years, in advance.

Whatever the precise rationale, the inclusion of the inexperienced Liu or Wang in the Shenzhou 9 crew, seems to reflect a high level of confidence from the normally cautious Chinese mission planners, in both their crew selection processes and their space hardware.

The prime crew for the Shenzhou 9 mission will be named in the next few days, and shortly afterwards, either Liu or Wang will be launched, not just into orbit, but into Chinese history.

Tony Quine is a long time observer of the Russian and Chinese manned space programmes and a regular author and contributor to both online and published media.


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