On Saturday, June 16th, at 6:37 p.m., China launched its Shenzhou-9 space capsule atop a Long March-2F carrier rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the province of Gansu.
The launch is considered a landmark event by the Chinese government and the public as the country sees its first female astronaut, Liu Yang, aboard the spacecraft along with Liu Wang and Jin Haiping.
The mission is to dock the orbiting Tiangong-1 lab module, after which two crew members will board to live and work for about 20 days while the third will remain in the capsule to handle any emergencies.
Liu Yang, 33, hails from Henan province in central China and lived with her husband in Beijing. According to China's state-run news agency Xinhua, Liu was a People's Liberation Army air force pilot "with 1,680 hours of flying experience and deputy head of a military flight unit" before she was selected as an astronaut candidate in May 2010. One of the program's requirements for being the first Chinese female in space was that she had to be married, preferably with a child in case space radiation should affect fertility.
China wants to have a permanently operational space station by 2020, and possibly a man on the moon by 2016. If this goal is successful, then China will join the ranks of Russia and the U.S. as the only countries to send independently maintained space stations into orbit. The country sent its first man into space in 2003 and had its first astronaut spacewalk in 2008. This flight marks yet another milestone in China's rapid scientific and technological progress since the last decade, which invariably elicits comparisons to the United States' focus on efforts dedicated to space.
Just last month, the success of the launch of SpaceX's Dragon capsule on the Falcon 9 rocket marked a new era in the American space program, one in which NASA will cooperate with commercial enterprises to further each other's goals. At a time when the U.S. federal government is slashing budgets to agencies such as NASA, the Chinese is pooling much of its military and civilian resources into its program.
According to The New York Times, the "People's Liberation Army drives the space program, and civilian institutions like universities and laboratories are subjected to the military's efforts." However, China is still considered to be years behind the U.S. in its technology.
Regardless of this mission’s implications, there is something about space that captures the imagination of all humans. Aside from being among the select few who have been in space, Liu is also one of the few to personally see Earth from such a unique perspective. She remarks that "after being trained as an astronaut, I have found there is still a very long distance from sky to space. A human being is so minute in the space."