‘Hero Pilot’

06.15.12

China’s First Female Astronaut, Liu Yang, Ready to Blast Off

Liu Yang, a 33-year-old Chinese military pilot, is set to become her country’s first woman in space Saturday. Melinda Liu on the volleyball-loving media fascination and her mission—and its scientific potential.

Military pilot Liu Yang, who on Saturday is slated to become China’s first woman astronaut in space, has clearly got the right stuff. She showed her mettle as early as September 2003, when she kept her cool after a flock of pigeons collided with the military transport plane she was piloting. Liu, 33, retained control of the aircraft, which had one disabled engine, and made a successful emergency landing.

“That incident showed her psychological capabilities. She didn’t panic,” says Chen Lan, an independent expert on Chinese space projects who co-edits an online magazine about his country’s manned space program. Already, “hero pilot” Liu Yang, as she’s been dubbed, is the focus of intense media coverage. A video snippet of Liu during a middle-school English language class “is the hottest thing on the Internet,” notes Chen.

The saturation media coverage of Liu contrasts sharply with past Chinese astronauts, whose backgrounds were kept secret before their missions. Today we know some of the tiniest details about Liu, who joined an elite PLA pilots’ unit 11 years ago and has been training as an astronaut for two years:

*In interviews, Liu’s teachers and fellow students revealed she was a keen volleyball player. “She’s good at overcoming difficulties,” Uncle Niu Zhenxiu told the China Daily.

*Her father-in-law, Zhang Huaitang, said that, as soon as her mission is accomplished, he hopes Liu and her husband will start a family—“of course, if that doesn’t affect her work.”

*Much has been made of Liu’s emphasis on gender equality, both symbolic and stated. “From Day 1, I’ve been told I’m no different from male astronauts,” she told the state-run CCTV.

*Her patriotic rhetoric captured the imagination of one Shenzhen newspaper, which cited a letter she wrote to her family, explaining why her parents shouldn’t visit her during her flight training—because “baby eagles can never soar under their family’s wing.” The paper added that in an English-language exercise she declared—in English, no less—“as a female pilot, the sacred rose garden in my heart is the motherland’s blue sky.”

Despite some fanciful or inaccurate reports, including one Chinese editor’s speculation that female astronauts must be mothers already and must not have scars, body odor, or decayed teeth, China’s ambition to put a woman into space has captured the imaginations of ordinary citizens.

While largely supportive of the program, some Chinese had become a tad blasé about their country’s celestial achievements, after witnessing three successful manned space flights since 2003. “The first Chinese woman in space has mobilized people’s attention, even if her gender isn’t as significant as the scientific aspects of the mission. Everyone will be interested in the launch,” observes Chen Lan, whose magazine Go Taikonauts! was recently released as an iPad app. (Taikonauts refers to the Chinese term for astronauts.)

“The first Chinese woman in space has mobilized people’s attention, even if her gender isn’t as significant as the scientific aspects of the mission.”

Liu and two male colleagues are expected to blast off Saturday at 6:37 p.m. Beijing time from the remote Jiuquan launch site, deep in the Gobi desert. The three-person team will dock their spacecraft with the Tiangong-1 space module that’s been orbiting 200 miles above the earth’s surface since last November. In what is being touted as a major step forward in China’s manned space program, they’ll conduct tests and then return to earth from a mission that’s slated to last 13 days altogether. “It means China’s spacecraft will become a genuine manned shuttle tool between space and earth,” state media quoted Zhou Jianping, chief designer of the manned space program, as saying.

In 2003 China became the third nation, behind the Soviet Union and the U.S., to send a human into space. This month’s mission is a milestone in Beijing’s two-decade-long strategy to establish a permanent space station by 2020. (Due largely to U.S. opposition, China has been barred from participation in the International Space Station, which is backed by 16 nations.)

Even the date of China’s planned launch is significant. June 16 is the anniversary of the day the first woman, Valentina Tereshkova of Russia, characterized at the time as a “heavy-set parachutist” by The New York Times, reached outer space in 1963. If conditions such as weather require a slight delay in the launch, a second attempt is slated to take place June 18. That happens to be the anniversary of when astronaut Sally Ride became the first American woman in space in 1983.