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China's first female astronaut: Who is she? (+video)

Liu Yang, a fighter pilot, is slated to become China's first female astronaut to travel into space on Saturday.

By Natalie WolchoverLife's Little Mysteries / June 15, 2012

In this April 18 photo, Liu Yang, China's first female astronaut, is shown during training in Beijing, China.



China will launch its Shenzhou-9 manned spacecraft Saturday in hopes of carrying out the country's first manual orbital docking test. On board the Shenzhou-9 will be another first: the Sally Ride of China.

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Chinese space museum officials talk about the upcoming launch of a Chinese spacecraft that will take the first Chinese woman into space.

Liu Yang, a 34-year-old fighter pilot, will become China's first female astronaut to travel into space. After conquering a rigorous selection process and completing two years of intense astronautic training, she will join two male crewmates, Jing Haipeng and Liu Wang, on the upcoming mission.

Aside from fulfilling the mission tasks, which include rendezvous and docking with the orbiting Tiangong 1 (Heavenly Palace) module, a prototype of a proposed Chinese space lab, Liu Yang "yearns to experience the wondrous, weightless environment of space, see the Earth and gaze upon the motherland," she told the press Friday.

But who is Yang, and how — from among half a billion Chinese women — was she chosen to be the country's first space heroine? [Infographic: Female Space Explorers]

Yang lives in Beijing, but hails from the central Chinese province of Henan, a relatively poor but heavily populated agricultural region. According to Xinhua, the official state news agency, she is an eloquent speaker, an avid reader and a lover of cooking. She is also married, as per the China space program's requirements. According to the newspaper China Daily, female Chinese astronauts must be married and preferably be mothers, because of concerns that higher levels of radiation in space would "harm their fertility."

Yang began reaching for the skies just after high school, when a teacher persuaded her to enroll in an aviation school. Since enlisting in the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force in 1997, she has logged 1,680 hours of flight time, earning the rank of major and deputy head of a flight unit. State media once praised her courage after she safely landed her fighter jet following a collision with a bird that covered the cockpit glass with blood, Reuters reported. She also won first place in a military speech contest.

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