BEIJING — Fifty years after the late Mao Zedong said communist China could not "even put a potato into space," a 41-year-old female banker is paying $100,000 for just a few minutes of weightlessness.
In the decades after Mao's cutting comments, China went on to develop an ambitious space program, becoming the third country to independently send an astronaut into orbit in 2003. Now, nearly 30 years after the death of China's founding father, Tong Jingjing's ambitions encapsulate her country's fascination with space travel.
Just two years ago, military pilot Liu Yang became China's first woman in space. Now Tong has the chance to become the country's first woman to take a commercial ride into space, aboard XCOR Aerospace's Lynx suborbital rocket plane.
She told NBC News that the money she's spending is immaterial compared to what she'll get out of the trip.
“You cannot compare money with this wonderful experience,” she said as she prepared for her grueling fitness program at a Beijing boxing gym. Her aim is “to let the world know Chinese women of this age still have ... dream(s),” she added.
Tong is among a handful of Chinese citizens who have forked over a sum equal to 15 years' earnings for the average worker, in hopes of seeing the final frontier for themselves.
XCOR Aerospace is building the Lynx in California, at the same time that it's setting up a new headquarters in Texas. The company has made arrangements to fly from spaceports in several other locales as well, ranging from Cape Canaveral to Curacao to South Korea.
Its current flight plan calls for sending the first-generation Lynx Mark I to an altitude of 37 miles starting in 2015 or 2016. Tong bought her ticket on the Lynx Mark II, which is due to enter service 12 to 18 months later. The Mark II will go 65 miles high, just beyond the internationally accepted boundary of outer space.
XCOR and its partners began promoting commercial spaceflight in China at the end of last year, and have sold more than 30 seats to Chinese customers since then.
Another space tourism company, Virgin Galactic, has held off on selling seats in China due to concerns about U.S. export regulations. Not XCOR. "We believe that the participant experience is not a licensable event under export control rules," the company's president, Andrew Nelson, told NBC News. That means the door is open to Tong and other would-be spacefliers in China.
Tong's flight will encompass only an hour of ascent and descent, but she expects the impact will last a lifetime.
“I want my next 40 years to be a new life,” she said. “In my world, at my age, women do not only care about Hermes and L.V. No, we still have the dream. If I fly to the space and come back, I think the next forty years [will be] the new life."
- Zhou Chaojie, Zhang Xiwen and Alan Boyle contributed to this report.