Who Will Be China’s First Female Astronaut?

The Guardian’s Tania Branigan reports that two female fighter pilots, Liu Yang and Wang Yaping, have made the shortlist to become China’s first female astronaut. One of them will join the country’s first manned space docking mission on the orbiting Tiangong-1 space lab module. China will be the eighth country to see one of its female citizens go into space.

Chinese media described Major Liu Yang, from Henan, as a “hero pilot” who achieved a successful emergency landing after a dramatic birdstrike incident spattered the windshield of her plane with blood.

Meanwhile, her rival, Captain Wang Yaping, from Shandong, is said to have flown rescue missions during the Sichuan earthquake and piloted a cloud-seeding plane to help clear the skies of rain for the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

Liu and Wang face very strict standards:

“They even must not have decayed teeth because any small flaw might cause great trouble or a disaster in space,” said Pan Zhihao of Space International, published by the China Academy of Space Technology.

The Guardian suggests that Chinese officials are concerned about space travel’s effects on a woman’s fertility, and that the female astronauts must therefore already be mothers. But Wang Xianmin, an official with China’s space program, insisted that there is no such requirement, according to Jinghua Times.

Compared to the first Russian and American female astronauts’ high profiles, Wang and Liu are more mysterious. Mark McDonald described their limited media exposure at the International Herald Tribune’s Rendezvous blog:

Their names were only confirmed last year when it was discovered they had autographed an envelope (along with their five male colleagues) featuring a postage stamp commemorating their astronaut class. They are rarely profiled in the Chinese media, and they make no public appearances, whether at local science fairs or international air shows.

Some suitably heroic details have emerged, however. From Damien Grammaticas’ BBC report on ‘China’s female astronaut quandary‘:

The Shenzhen Special Zone Daily says [Liu] is an only child with a penchant for making patriotic speeches.

In a letter home after her first parachute jump, she explained why she never let her parents visit her during her four years in pilot training.

“Baby eagles”, she explained, “can never soar under their family’s wing”.

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