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China's first manned space lab mission coming within days

China will send three astronauts into space aboard a Shenzhou 9 capsule to rendezvous with China's mini-space station Tiangong-1 by mid-June. The mission could be a major milestone in China's space program.

By Tariq MalikSpace.com / June 11, 2012

A flag flies near a rocket launch pad at the launch center in Jiuquan, China. China will launch three astronauts this month to dock with an orbiting experimental module, and the crew might include its first female space traveler, a government news agency said Saturday.

(AP Photo)

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China will launch its first manned mission to an orbiting space laboratory in mid-June, according to state media reports and the country's human spaceflight agency.

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A Long March 2F rocket will launch three astronauts aboard a Shenzhou 9 capsule for China's first manned space docking at the mini-space station Tiangong-1. The space lab module has been circling Earth unmanned since its launch last year.

"The Shenzhou 9 will perform our country's first manned space docking mission with the orbiting Tiangong 1 space lab module," the Xinhua news agency quoted Zhou Jianping, chief designer of China's manned space program, as saying on June ).

IN PICTURES: China's space program

Zhou's comments came as he accompanied the rocket set to launch the Shenzhou 9 mission to a pad at China's Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the country's northwest region.

The mission, Zhou told Xinhua, will be a major milestone for China's space exploration program.

"It means China's spacecraft will become a genuine manned shuttle tool between space and Earth. It can send human beings to space stations or space labs," Zhou told Xinhua. "This will be a significant step in China's manned space flight history."  [Gallery: Tiangong 1, China's First Space Lab]

 China's Shenzhou 9 mission will mark the fourth human spaceflight for the country, which has been making steady advances since the launch of Chinese astronaut Yang Liwei in 2003 on Shenzhou 5, the country's first human spaceflight. China is the third country to achieve human spaceflight after Russia and the United States.

Since its first flight, China has launched two more manned missions, the two-man Shenzhou 6 flight and three-person Shenzhou 7 mission. Last September, China launched the Tiangong 1 module — a prototype for a future space station — into orbit. That launch was followed in November by the unmanned Shenzhou 8 mission, which successfully docked a capsule with the space laboratory twice during the test flight.

The Shenzhou 9 mission will mark China's first human spaceflight to an orbiting module. Earlier this year, space program officials said the mission could also mark the first launch of China's first female astronaut, but a final decision on that is pending, Xinhua reported.

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