China’s new space station gets its first female astronaut

The first woman assigned to work on China’s new space station will be aboard when the Shenzhou-13 spacecraft blasts off early Saturday local time, in what’s set to be a landmark moment for female astronauts and the country’s rapidly expanding space program.

Wang Yaping, 41, is part of a three-member team heading for the Tiangong — or Heavenly Palace — space station, where she is expected to become the first Chinese woman to conduct a spacewalk. China’s aim to complete the station and have it fully crewed by December 2022 is an ambitious target but it appears to be on course. Last month, three other Chinese astronauts successfully completed a three-month stay on board, during which they worked on the station’s core module and conducted two spacewalks to install equipment.

This time, Wang’s team will stay for 183 days — the longest stint in space by Chinese astronauts. She will be accompanied by mission commander Zhai Zhigang, 55, and Ye Guangfu, 41. Their spacecraft is scheduled to take off from the Gobi Desert in northwest China at 12:23 a.m. Beijing time on Saturday (12:23 p.m. ET Friday), the China Manned Space Program said Thursday. Preparations for their stay have been long in the making. Last month, a cargo vessel delivered 6 metric tons of food, water, oxygen bottles, spacesuits and other necessities to the station.

It will be Wang’s second space mission. A major in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force and a transport plane pilot, she was recruited as an aspiring astronaut in 2010. In 2013, she spent 15 days in orbit with the Shenzhou-10 mission. From a trial space station module, she gave a science lecture to 60 million students across China — showing them surface tension of liquids in space, conducting kung fu moves and answering questions. In an interview with CNN in 2015, Wang recounted the first moment she looked down on Earth from space. “When I looked out of the window for the first time, I realized the true meaning of the power of life… that kind of beauty was just beyond comprehension,” she said.

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