Countdown starts for Chinese
woman 'taikonauts'

Seconds after taking off on a routine practice flight, air force pilot Liu Yang heard a loud thud. A burning smell filled the cockpit.

Birds, she guessed correctly.

Indeed, her plane had flown straight into a flock of pigeons, which wreaked havoc on the aircraft. The right engine was fast shutting down, its turbine blade snapped into two. The air inlet was almost completely blocked with plumage and flesh.

Calmly, she radioed the control tower, kept her eyes on the runway and landed the plane safely. When engineers checked the plane, they found 21 dead pigeons.

Liu's unruffled response during that incident in 2003 no doubt helped her make the coveted shortlist to become China's first woman astronaut.

Only she and Wang Yaping, also an air force pilot, were selected from a pool of 15 candidates after years of grueling training.

One of them will finally be picked to join two male astronauts on the Shenzhou IX spacecraft, which is expected to blast off on Saturday.

Whether Liu or Wang, the chosen one can expect not only to find a place in China's history but also be hailed as a national hero, like the country's first spaceman Yang Liwei.

China will be, after all, only the third nation after Russia and the United States to send a woman into space using its own technology.

Liu, 34, is from central Henan province while Wang, 32, grew up in eastern Shandong.

They are married but, contrary to earlier media reports that only mothers will be chosen, neither has children.

Both women are noted for their athletic strengths, in particular strong stamina, according to local media reports which extolled their virtues, hard work and stellar service in the air force.

Wang, for instance, is said to have flown rescue missions for seven days and nights during the Sichuan earthquake in 2008.

She also piloted a cloud-seeding plane to help clear the skies of rain for the Beijing Olympics in the same year.

“I never craved to be that successful or that famous,” she told state media.

“I never thought of becoming a woman pilot. I only wanted to be a doctor or lawyer and make a living. So if I'm not selected, I won't be disappointed. As long as I make some progress every day, I will be very happy.”

Chinese netizens are rooting for their favored taikonaut – taikong being Chinese for space – although Hong Kong media reports suggest that Liu is most likely to be chosen, with one even citing Yang as saying that the decision has been made.

Special arrangements have been made for the lone female taikonaut in the Shenzhou IX, which will perform China's first manned space docking mission with the orbiting Tiangong-1 space lab module.

She will have a separate toilet and soundproof bedroom to protect her privacy, even though the space vessel is 15 cubic meters.

“She will also be able to take a sponge bath with more water supply than that for her male counterparts, according to international conventions, and even bring some specially made cosmetics into space,” researcher Pang Zhihao from the China Academy of Space Technology told state media.

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