BEIJING -- It might not be a giant step for mankind, but Saturday’s launch of a piloted space capsule known as Shenzhou-9 marks China’s breakthrough into the exclusive club once made up only of the United States and Russia.
And as far as womankind is concerned, there is another first. One of the three astronauts in the capsule is a woman, 33-year-old Liu Yang, the first Chinese woman in space.
Shenzhou-9 was launched at 6:37 p.m (local time) against a vivid blue sky from the Jiuquan space station at the edge of the Gobi Desert. Televised nationally, the launch prompted a round of applause in the command center as the capsule separated from its carrier rocket and entered orbit.
"Today’s successful launch is a great first step," said CCTV host Kang Hui. "I hope the astronauts will bring us more good news like this in the coming days."
The trickiest part of the mission will come when the capsule docks with the Tiangong 1 space module, a prototype of a space station about the size of a school bus, which is orbiting about 213 miles above Earth. The docking is expected Monday.
The same docking procedure was carried out in November 2011 by an unmanned capsule, the Shenzhou 8, by remote control, but the degree of difficulty is higher when carrying a crew.
During the 13-day mission, the astronauts will conduct various experiments, including some using butterflies.
China’s appetite and budget for space exploration appears to be growing at a time when others are getting out of the business.
China’s objective is to test docking mechanisms and life-support systems that will be essential if China is to achieve its long-term objective of building and operating its own space station. The Chinese have also said they want to send a man to the moon.
"Docking technology is the foundation for the construction of a space station," said Wu Ping, a spokeswoman for the space program, during a televised press conference Friday.
The Chinese were excluded from the International Space Station by a vote of the U.S. Congress, citing fears of technology transfers. The Chinese have said they will build their own smaller station -- about 60 tons -- by 2020, the same year that funding for the International Space Station expires.
"Ironically, by the time they finish their space station in the early 2020s, the Chinese might be the only people left up there. Absent changes in current U.S., Russian and European space policies, the International Space Station will be decommissioned and deorbited in 2020," noted analyst Gregory Kulacki in a report last week by the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The Chinese sent their first man into space in 2003.
As latecomers to the space race, the Chinese are still substantially behind, perhaps by as much as 40 years in the estimation of Morris Jones, an Australian scholar who published a book on the Chinese space industry.
"Right now, the Chinese space program is roughly the same as the American space program towards the very end of the 1960s, though clearly they are not in a position to fly to the moon," said Jones.
Jones sees China’s space ambitions in much the same light as the U.S. and Russia’s, serving military, technological and propaganda goals.
"Human spaceflight is a very advanced achievement, and China is attempting to show its growing strength," he said.
In the live television coverage, a camera inside the capsule showed a large red banner behind the astronauts with the ubiquitous Chinese character fu, meaning luck. After the Shenzhou-9 separated from its carrier rocket, the astronauts waved to the camera and workers at the command center waved a Chinese flag.
There are three astronauts (or “Taikonauts” as they are called here, using the Chinese word for space taikong), but most of the media’s attention has been lavished on Liu Yang. Stories in the state press have described how she would be allowed to bring toxin-free makeup on the mission and would be allocated extra rations of water for washing although nobody is permitted to shower.
Like her male colleagues, Jing Haipeng and Liu Wang, Liu is an officer of the Peoples Liberation Army and, as the Chinese state press noted, a member of the Communist Party. In interviews beforehand, Liu said she’d wanted to become a bus driver as a child.
As a pilot, she is credited with making a daring emergency landing in 2003 after a flock of birds struck the engine of her plane. The Chinese state press has compared her to Sally Ride and Valentina Tereshkova, the first American and Russian women in space, respectively.
"Generally speaking, female astronauts have better durability, psychological stability and ability to deal with loneliness," spokeswoman Wu said at Friday’s press conference.
-- Barbara Demick
Photo: The Long March-2F rocket carries the manned Shenzhou-9 spacecraft into orbit. China hopes to join the U.S. and Russia as the only countries with independently maintained space stations. Credit: Li Gang / Associated Press