Half the Sky: China Prepares to Send First Female Astronaut into Space

Liu Yang will be in orbit with two other astronauts for nearly two weeks.

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© Wang Jianmin / Xinhua / ZUMAPRESS.com

Liu Yang attends a drill in Jiuquan, northwest China's Gansu Province, on June 12, 2012

In 1963, when cosmonaut Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova became the first woman in space, she took a few moments during her 48 orbits of earth to send greetings to the Soviet Union’s major rivals. “Best wishes to the industrious American people,” she said, as if to emphasize that the USSR’s space race challengers hadn’t been quite industrious enough—the U.S. wouldn’t put woman into space for another 20 years. She also sent “warm greetings to the multimillioned Chinese,” who had recently split with their Soviet allies. At the time Tereshkova was orbiting the earth, China was emerging from the Great Leap Forward, an attempt to catch up with the West through forced collectivization that saw widespread waste and famine that killed tens of millions. The Americans at least had industriousness; the Chinese only had numbers.

So when China sends its first female astronaut into space, 49 years after the Soviet Union first performed the feat and 29 years after the U.S. did, it will rightfully be celebrating. For much of the past decade, China has marked space firsts that were accomplished nearly half a century earlier, during the Cold War. It put its first man in orbit, Yang Liwei, in 2003, 42 years after Yuri Gagarin; it conducted its first space walk in 2008, 42 years after the Soviet Union. China may have not been the first to any of those targets, but it has certainly come the farthest, from starvation to spaceflight in a few short decades. And so it seems at times like it is in a space race with itself, hoping to brush aside the waste and destruction of the Mao era and show that it too is competing with the world’s most recent superpowers, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R, even if one of those no longer exists.

(PHOTOS: Women of Space)

China has recognized the same benefits of a manned space program, from developing technologies with both civilian and military applications to inspiring young people to pursue careers in science. There is also a great propaganda value in such a technologically advanced undertaking, which Chinese President Hu Jintao made clear last year after China’s unmanned Shenzhou VIII capsule docked with the Tiangong I module in November, a precursor to this summer’s mission. “The glorious achievement of China’s manned space program has strengthened national cohesion and the confidence of all Chinese people,” he said at a celebratory rally in December attended by China’s top leadership. Hu added that the space program “strengthened Chinese people’s will to continue the opening-up drive and reform, and pursue the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation on the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics” and that the Communist Party’s leadership provided a “political advantage” for China’s space program.

The mission for Shenzhou IX, which is expect to launch Saturday from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi desert, includes a rendezvous with Tiangong I, an unmanned, 8-ton module launched last fall. Then the crew will conduct the country’s first manned space docking with the Tiangong I, part of preparations for building a space station by 2020. Of course public enthusiasm in the space program can lag somewhat over the course of the two decades. And some firsts don’t always have the appeal of others. Which is why Shenzhou IX will be remembered as the first time China sent a woman into space.

(MORE: China’s Female Astronauts: Must Be a Married Mom)

In 2010 two female People’s Liberation Army Air Force fighter pilots, Major Liu Yang, and Captain Wang Yaping, both 34, were selected as reserve astronauts. In addition to the rigorous standards that all Chinese astronauts must to meet, they were also required to be wives and mothers out of concern about the influence of space travel on fertility. Overall, the domestic coverage of the pair has been relatively subdued, following an established pattern with China’s space program. It wasn’t until after Yang Liwei, China’s first man in space, returned safely that he was celebrated in China. And it took years for details of his mission to be made public, such as the fact that his nose was bloodied on re-entry, and he had to be cleaned up before his capsule was re-opened for television.

On Friday, after much speculation about whether Liu or Wang would get the nod to be China’s first female astronaut in space, Liu was announced as the final selection. The state-run China Daily reported earlier that she was “a quiet person who keeps a low profile,” who in 2003 successfully landed a plane that hit a flock of pigeons, damaging an engine and leaving the windshield splattered with blood. She will be in orbit with two other male astronauts for nearly two weeks. And she will return one of the most famous women in China.

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