On Saturday, China's Shenzhou 9 spacecraft will carry three taikonauts on a mission to low Earth orbit, where it will attempt to dock for the first time with the country's Tiangong-1 space station test module. The mission marks a major step in China's push to become one of the world's foremost space-faring nations, but it's also significant for another reason: on board the spacecraft will be 34-year-old fighter pilot Liu Yang, China's first female astronaut.
Chinese media featured glowing reports about Liu's prowess, noting she's a Chinese air force major and a military pilot with a cool head. According to China Daily, in 2003, birds struck the engine of a plane Liu was piloting. She lost the right engine but stabilized the aircraft and made a safe emergency landing.
Liu was recruited in 2010 to join the taikonaut corps. A spokeswoman for China's space program remarked "Generally speaking, female astronauts have better durability, psychological stability and ability to deal with loneliness," according to Xinhua, which ranked her with Sally Ride, the first U.S. female astronaut, and Russian Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space.
Something NPR's writeup left out: Liu is also a mom. If that strikes you as inconsequential, it turns out it isn't. According to China Daily, female astronauts must meet all the mental and physical criteria of their male counterparts and then some — for example, they must be married, and mothers are actually preferred, due to fears that radiation exposure in space could "harm their fertility".
Top image via AP; Liu waving via Reuters