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China's Next Women Astronauts
by Morris Jones
Sydney, Australia (SPX) Mar 26, 2013

File image: Wang Yaping.

In mid-2013, China's second woman in space is expected to lift off. Wang Yaping, a former air force pilot, is expected to be aboard the crew of the Shenzhou 10 spacecraft, which will fly to a rendezvous with China's Tiangong 1 space laboratory on a 15-day mission. This will represent the second launch of a Chinese woman into space. China's first female astronaut, Liu Yang, flew on board the Shenzhou 9 mission to Tiangong 1 in 2012.

Liu and Wang represent China's only two active female astronauts. Soon, both will have a mission under their belt. With an extensive program of human spaceflight planned for the years ahead, questions must be asked about the future of Chinese women in space. When can we expect to see more of them?

In the short term, this analyst expects that there will be a significant gap between the expected flight of Wang Yaping and the next launch of a woman from China. The structure of China's astronaut corps and the planning of the program in the next few years suggest that China will be in no hurry to fly another.

The Shenzhou 10 mission will be the second and final crewed expedition to the Tiangong 1 space laboratory. After this, we can expect a pause in Chinese crewed space launches while China prepares to loft the Tiangong 2 space laboratory, which is currently expected in 2015. It was disclosed in a somewhat oblique fashion that China has recently reshuffled the Tiangong program.

Originally, Tiangong 2 was expected to be slightly modified version of the Tiangong 1 module, with some improvements to its life-support system. A presentation by China's first astronaut suggests that China has now deleted this slightly upgraded laboratory in favour of a larger, more advanced spacecraft.

The "new and improved" Tiangong 2 has been expected for a long time, but it was originally expected to fly under the moniker of "Tiangong 3" once missions to the intermediate Tiangong 2 were completed. China has fast- tracked its development of the Tiangong module by going straight to a fully upgraded vehicle and losing the middle step.

This reshuffle is clearly good news for advancing China's spaceflight capabilities, but it poses a dilemma for assigning crews to space missions. Chinese crewed space launches are conducted sporadically, and China has a substantial and steadily ageing pool of unflown astronauts. There will be considerable pressure to fly more of them before they are judged too old or unfit for active service. If Wang Yaping finds her place aboard the crew of Shenzhou 10 this year, all of the remaining unflown Chinese astronauts will be men.

Losing the smaller Tiangong module means a loss of potential missions to that module. It seems probable that there will be several crews launched to the advanced Tiangong 2 module, but China has been coy about how many expeditions will go there.

This analyst suspects that overall, the fast-tracking of the Tiangong program also means fewer crews will be launched across the entire program. This will save money for China's pennywise space program, and this is also one potential reason why the program has been reshuffled. Clearing the decks of China's unflown spacemen will thus become more critical than ever, thanks to the reshuffle. But could a woman still be included on a crew to Tiangong 2?

Let's look at the options for a third female spaceflight for China. There is a general consensus amongst space analysts that Liu Yang, China's first woman in space, will not fly again. She is probably judged too valuable to be sent on any more risky space launches.

It is possible that Wang Yaping will remain on active status as an astronaut after her own first mission. This analyst would not rule out the possibility that Wang could make a second flight in the future, possibly on one of the final expeditions to the Tiangong 2 laboratory. China has already flown some of its male astronauts twice. Sending the same woman on a second mission could have its advantages. Apart from her experience in actually working in space, physiological differences between the first and second missions could also be explored.

China will need to recruit more female astronauts in the future, but it will probably be at least three more years before this happens. The next group of females will probably be recruited alongside the next group of males, when China selects its third group of astronauts. This next "class" will probably be selected in preparation for the launch of China's modular space station, which is expected to be launched around 2020.

So far, all of China's astronauts, male and female, have been Air Force pilots. The third group will probably be more diverse. We can expect more pilots but there will probably also be scientists, doctors and engineers. This will provide the broader range of skills required for work on the space station. Some of the pilots could still be women, but this analyst expects that the next female astronauts will probably be drawn from other professions.

It's important to remember that the crew of Shenzhou 10 has still not been officially announced, and Wang Yaping could possibly not be included. If so, we could probably expect to see her fly aboard one of the expeditions to Tiangong 2. Or Wang could simply disappear from flight schedules altogether.

Whatever happens in the near future, China will probably steadily increase its flight rate for female astronauts in the decades ahead. Recruiting more women in the next astronaut intake would be a good sign for their future.

Dr Morris Jones is an Australian space analyst. Email Replace NOSPAM with @ to send email. Dr Jones will answer media inquiries.


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China National Space Administration
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