JIUQUAN, China China launched its most ambitious space mission yet on Saturday, carrying its first female astronaut and two male colleagues in an attempt to dock with an orbiting module and work on board for more than a week.
The Shenzhou 9 capsule lifted off as scheduled at 6:37 p.m. (1037 GMT) from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on the edge of the Gobi Desert. All systems functioned normally and, just over 10 minutes later, it opened its solar panels and entered orbit.
The launch was declared a success by space program chief Chang Wanquan, a Peoples Liberation Army general who sits on the ruling Communist Partys powerful central military commission underscoring the programs close military ties.
Female astronaut Liu Yang, 33, and two male crew members mission commander and veteran astronaut Jing Haipeng, 45, and newcomer Liu Wang, 43 are to dock the spacecraft with a prototype space lab launched last year in a key step toward building a permanent space station. All three are experienced pilots and officers in the Chinese air force.
Two of the astronauts will live and work inside the module to test its life-support systems while the third will remain in the capsule to deal with any unexpected emergencies.
China is hoping to join the United States and Russia as the only countries to send independently maintained space stations into orbit. It is already one of just three nations to have launched manned spacecraft on their own.
Another manned mission to the module is planned later this year, while possible future missions could include sending a man to the moon.
The space program is a source of enormous national pride for China, reflecting its rapid economic and technological progress and ambition to rank among the worlds leading nations. The selection of the first female astronaut is giving the program an additional publicity boost.