China sent Liu Yang – its first woman astronaut — into orbit on Saturday, along with two others, to achieve the country's first manual space docking.
Shenzhou-9 is China's fourth manned space mission and blasted off on schedule at 6:37 p.m. local time from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center the Gobi desert in the northwest of the country, according to Agence France-Presse. Chang Wanquan, commander-in-chief of China's manned space program, said the rocket had entered orbit and declared the launch a "complete success."
Liu, a 33-year-old air force pilot, Jing Haipeng and Liu Wang will dock with a prototype space lab created last year in a major step toward building a larger, more permanent space station by 2020, reported the Guardian. The astronauts will be there for about a week, with two living and working inside the module to test life-support systems and one remaining in the capsule to deal with any emergencies.
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"I believe that we can achieve this goal [of a permanent space station by 2020], because we already have the basic technological capability," Zhou Jianping, the chief designer of China's manned space engineering project, told reporters before the launch, according to Reuters.
The launch was seen on state television and showed the three astronauts waving from the cabin until moments before the blast-off, reported Reuters. A red sign with the Chinese symbol for good fortune hung behind them.