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September 18, 2009

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China lists females as taikonaut candidates

CHINA has named several women to its list of astronaut candidates for the first time as it announced selections yesterday for the next phase of its space program.

The new batch of "taikonauts," the Chinese word for astronauts, comprises 15 women and 30 men - all pilots in the People's Liberation Army Air Force, age 27 to 34, with college degrees.

The candidates will undergo further tests, including physiological and psychological checks, an Air Force official said. The group will then be reduced to a final squad of two women and five men.

The official said the male candidates are all fighter pilots and the female candidates are air-transport pilots. Many of them have conducted important flight missions such as rescue tasks for the massive Wenchuan earthquake on May 12, 2008, in Sichuan Province.

The authorities said they all have demonstrated "excellent flight skills and boast great psychological quality."

The selections, conducted by the Air Force, started in May. Applicants were subjected to preliminary medical and psychological examinations as well as checks on family background and other "comprehensive assessments."

China has sent six taikonauts aloft since 2003 when the country's space pioneer, Yang Liwei, went up in the domestically developed Shenzhou V spacecraft. That flight was followed in 2005 by a two-man mission carrying Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng.

The trio of Shenzhou VII taikonauts, Zhai Zhigang, Liu Boming and Jing Haipeng, orbited the Earth for three days last year.

Zhai became the first Chinese to walk in space on September 27, 2008. His spacewalk lasted about 20 minutes and was designed to help pave the way for the country's next space mission - a docking maneuver in 2011 and a manned space station in 2020.

China will launch an unmanned space module into orbit as early as the end of 2010 that is expected to dock with the unmanned Shenzhou VIII in 2011 - the first time for China to attempt the complicated procedure.

The manned Shenzhou IX is also scheduled to dock with the unmanned space module that year. Astronauts for Shenzhou IX will be chosen from the first corps of 14 astronauts, which includes six who have been in space before.

The new group may not be ready in time.


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