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China to send its first female astronaut into orbit (+video)

The crew of China's Shenzhou 9 space docking mission to its prototype space station includes Liu Yang, the country's first woman to fly in space.

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Liu has about 1,680 hours of flying experience, served as the deputy head of a PLA flight unit, and is married — a requirement for all China's female astronauts, according to media reports.

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Of the three Shenzhou 9 astronauts, only Jing Haipeng, 46, has flown in space before. He served on the three-man crew of Shenzhou 7 in 2008, a mission that featured China's first spacewalk.

Rounding out the Shenzhou 9 mission team is Liu Wang, 43, a senior colonel in the PLA with 1,000 hours of flight time under his belt.

Major space docking test

Performing the first manned docking is the next step toward China's ultimate goal of establishing a crewed space laboratory by 2020. China is the third country, after Russia and the United States, to launch its own astronauts to space.

Fueling of the Long March 2F rocket set to launch Shenzhou 9 will begin at about 5:30 p.m. local time today at Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China's Gansu Province.

"The launch of the Shenzhou 9 is a highly influential event that marks an important milestone for the development of China's space technology," Cui Jijun, director of the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, said on Wednesday, according to Xinhua.

While the upcoming mission is China's first crewed flight to dock two spacecraft, it follows an unmanned docking mission that went smoothly last November when the robotic Shenzhou 8 craft linked with Tiangong 1 after its launch.

"In the Russian and USA space programs, the most serious docking problems have been caused by automatic docking systems, more so than by manual docking," Xinhua quoted Pat Norris, chairman of the Royal Aeronautical Society Space Group, as saying. "China has taken the prudent course of verifying new space technology in robotic flights before applying it to human space missions."

China's first astronaut, Yang Liwei, launched on the Shenzhou 5 mission in 2003. Two more missions followed, with the second including the nation's first spacewalk.

Follow Clara Moskowitz on Twitter @ClaraMoskowitz or @Spacedotcom. We're also on Facebook & Google+.

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