China sent into orbit on Saturday its first female astronaut, 33-year-old Liu Yang, who became one of the three astronauts to achieve the country's first manual space docking as part of an ambitious project to start building a 60-ton space station by about 2020.
A Long March rocket carrying Shenzhou-9 spacecraft lifted off from the Jiuquan space center on Saturday in the Gobi Desert at 18:37 Beijing time (10:37 GMT).
The spacecraft will dock with the Tiangong-1 lab module, which was launched in September, 2011, paving the way for China to become a major space power capable of operating a permanent space station in the future.
Liu, who told the Xinhua news agency that she “yearns to experience the wondrous, weightless environment of space, see the Earth and gaze upon the motherland,” joined two other astronauts headed by Jing Haipeng, an experienced Chinese astronaut who had been on space missions twice.
A mother-of-one, Liu, was raised in a poor and populous Henan province in central China. In 1997, she joined the army and has flown 1,680 flying hours since then. Liu has once been hailed by the Chinese media when she had safely landed her fighter jet after a bird strike disabled the jet’s engine.
Chinese space officials announced in 2011 plans to build a 60-ton space station by 2020 and develop a space freighter for hauling supplies to the station.
China's ambitious space program enjoyed a sound success in the past decade, including putting a human into orbit and launching a lunar probe.