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Women were among a team of astronauts in training for a delicate space docking scheduled to take place this year between the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft and the Tiangong 1 module.
Chinese officials said today they may send the country's first woman into space this year after several women made it through the initial selection phase for its first manned space docking mission, Xinhua reported.
Astronauts — including an unspecified number of women — are training to become part of the three-person team that will blast off aboard the spacecraft Shenzhou ("Divine Vessel") 9 between June and August.
The Shenzhou will dock manually with the Tiangong ("Heavenly Palace") 1 module orbiting the Earth — a delicate maneuver, according to Agence France-Presse, that the Russians and Americans successfully completed in the 1960s.
Assembly of the Shenzhou 9 and its carrier rocket, the Long March 2F, had been completed, Xinhua reported.
The state news agency quoted Niu Hongguang, deputy commander-in-chief of China's manned space program, as saying the crew from the mission will be selected at the last minute.
Dozens of female astronauts have flown into space, including women from the US, South Korea, Japan, Canada, France and Russia.
China sent its first person into space in 2003 and has since conducted several manned missions, but has never included a woman, AFP reported, adding that China sees its space program as a symbol of its global stature.
AFP wrote that: "The current program aims to provide China with a space station in which a crew can live independently for several months, as at the old Russian Mir facility or the International Space Station."
China has completed two successful space dockings, according to Space.com, the first on Nov. 2, 2011, between the Shenzhou 8 and Tiangong 1.
On Nov. 14, the Shenzhou disengaged and then re-docked smoothly about half an hour later.
"The perfect docking between Shenzhou-8 and Tiangong-1 has laid the perfect foundation for the manned docking this year," Niu was quoted as saying, noting that the manned docking will feature brand new technology.
Tiangong-1, or Heavenly Palace-1, has been orbiting normally for more than 160 days, and is capable of docking with Shenzhou-9 and accommodating astronauts, he said.