Video: China sends its first woman to space

NBC News and news services
updated 6/16/2012 10:43:19 AM ET 2012-06-16T14:43:19

China launched its most ambitious space mission yet on Saturday, carrying its first female astronaut and two male colleagues in an attempt to dock with an orbiting module and work on board for more than a week.

The Shenzhou 9 capsule lifted off as scheduled at 6:37 p.m. (6:37 a.m. ET) from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on the edge of the Gobi Desert. All systems functioned normally and, just over 10 minutes later, it opened its solar panels and entered orbit.

The launch was declared a success by space program chief Chang Wanquan, a People's Liberation Army general who sits on the ruling Communist Party's powerful central military commission — underscoring the program's close military ties.

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Female astronaut Liu Yang, 33, and two male crew members — mission commander and veteran astronaut Jing Haipeng, 45, and newcomer Liu Wang, 43 — are to dock the spacecraft with a prototype space lab launched last year in a key step toward building a permanent space station. All three are experienced pilots and officers in the Chinese air force.

Also in attendance for Liu’s big moment: Liu Yandong, the only woman in China’s ruling Politburo.

The launch, which was broadcast on Chinese state central television, was a popular topic on China’s twitter-like service, Weibo. There were over 372,000 posts on the microblog service with the hash tag, “Shenzhou 9 is launching today.”

"My whole family sat in front of TV and watched the whole launch. I almost had a heart attack. It's successfully launched! We're so excited and happy!" wrote one happy poster.

“I happened to watch the launch, everyone just held breath when they did countdown,” wrote another poster. “To be honest, many things have made me less confident lately, but at this moment nothing can stop this exciting patriotism."

In recent days, Chinese state media has been inundated with stories about Liu, who has 1,680 hours of flight time. One China Daily profileof Liu noted that this mission would not be the first time she’d flown under pressure, recounting a story about an emergency landing she once made after her plane struck 18 pigeons and one of her engines failed.

After undergoing two years of intensive training, Liu and a second woman, Wang Yaping, were selected as candidates for space missions.

Just how intense was the training? A post on “Weibo News” microblog said that during Liu Yang’s two years of training, she allegedly never saw a movie, went out shopping or even walked out of the Beijing-located government compound she was stationed in.

China space flight a test of docking precision

It is believed that since Liu was selected for this flight, Wang – also a former People’s Liberation Army pilot who notably flew rescue missions during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake – will likely be selected to crew another mission slated for 2013.

At a press conference Friday, Liu excitedly talked about the upcoming mission saying, “I want to experience the fantastic environment in space and appreciate the beautiful Earth and our homeland from space.”

Liu also discussed the intense training the three person crew has reportedly undergone. “We have conducted more than 1,500 trainings on manual docking in the simulated devices, and have successfully grasped the techniques," said Liu.

"One glance, one facial expression, one movement ... we understand each other thoroughly," added Jing, who also noted that the team trained 16 hours a day for months preparing for this mission.

Two of the astronauts will live and work inside the module to test its life-support systems while the third will remain in the capsule to deal with any unexpected emergencies.

China is hoping to join the United States and Russia as the only countries to send independently maintained space stations into orbit. It is already one of just three nations to have launched manned spacecraft on their own.

Another manned mission to the module is planned later this year, while possible future missions could include sending a man to the moon.

The space program is a source of enormous national pride for China, reflecting its rapid economic and technological progress and ambition to rank among the world's leading nations. The selection of the first female astronaut is giving the program an additional publicity boost.

Story: China's first woman astronaut takes the starring role

On a state visit in Denmark, President Hu Jintao congratulated everyone connected with the mission. "I urge you to carry forward the spirit ... and make new contributions to advance the development of our country's manned space mission," Hu said in a statement read to technicians at Jiuquan.

The astronauts are expected to reach the module, called Tiangong 1, on Monday. Now orbiting at 343 kilometers (213 miles) above Earth, the module is only a prototype, and plans call for it to be replaced by a larger permanent space station due for completion around 2020. That station is to weigh about 60 tons, slightly smaller than NASA's Skylab of the 1970s and about one-sixth the size of the 16-nation International Space Station.

Image: Chinese astronauts in capsule
CCTV
The crew members for China's Shenzhou 9 mission — Liu Wang, Jing Haipeng and Liu Yang — are seated inside their capsule for Saturday's liftoff.

China has only limited cooperation in space with other nations. Its exclusion from the ISS, largely due to objections from the United States, was one of the key spurs for it to start pursuing an independent space program 20 years ago.

China first launched a man into space in 2003, followed by a two-man mission in 2005 and a three-man trip in 2008 that featured the country's first spacewalk.

In November 2011, the unmanned Shenzhou 8 successfully docked twice with Tiangong 1 by remote control.

Shenzhou 9 is to first dock with the module by remote control, then separate and dock again manually in order to fully test the reliability of the system. The astronauts are to conduct medical tests and various other experiments before returning to Earth after more than 10 days.

NBC's Ed Flanagan and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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