Liu Yang, a 33-year-old major in the People’s Liberation Army who entered the astronaut training programme just two years ago, will take part in China’s fourth manned space launch, a spokeswoman for the country’s space programme said.
“From day one I have been told I am no different from the male astronauts,” Liu, a trained fighter pilot who is married but has no children, told the state broadcaster CCTV in an interview broadcast after Friday’s announcement.
“I believe in persevering. If you persevere, success lies ahead of you,” added a visibly emotional Liu, who was interviewed wearing her blue astronaut’s uniform.
Liu joined the astronaut training programme in May 2010 and was selected as a possible candidate for Saturday’s mission after she excelled in testing, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
She initially trained as a cargo pilot and has been praised for her cool handling of an incident when her jet hit a flock of pigeons but she was still able to land the heavily damaged aircraft.
She and her two male colleagues – mission commander Jing Haipeng, 45, and Liu Wang, 43 – will take off at 6.37 pm (1037 GMT) from the Jiuquan space base in north China’s Gobi desert.
They will perform China’s first manned space docking – a highly technical procedure that brings together two vessels in high speed orbit.
At a press conference the astronauts – who appeared behind a glass wall before a small group of hand-picked journalists – said the manual docking was a “huge test”, but that they had rehearsed the procedure more than 1,500 times.
“The three of us understand each other tacitly. One glance, one facial expression, one movement, we understand each other thoroughly,” said Jing.
The mission to dock with the Tiangong-1 module currently orbiting Earth is the latest step in a plan aimed at giving the country a permanent space station in which a crew can live independently for several months by 2020.
China sent its first person into space in 2003 and has since conducted several manned missions, the latest in 2008, but has never yet included a woman.
Liu’s mission, which has been heavily trailed in the Chinese media, will make China the third country after the Soviet Union and United States to send a woman into space using its own technology, and represent another propaganda coup for the one-party communist state.
China sees its space programme as a symbol of its global stature, growing technical expertise, and the Communist Party’s success in turning around the fortunes of the once poverty-stricken nation.
Xinhua said the three astronauts’ physical state — including their metabolism and moods — would be carefully monitored during the mission to obtain data about the effects of weightlessness on the human body.
All three were in “good and stable condition and preparing for their space journey,” it said.
China was the third country to send humans into space after Russia and America, and it is now also looking into sending astronauts to the moon, although nothing has been set in stone.
A white paper released last December outlining China’s ambitious space programme said the country “will conduct studies on the preliminary plan for a human lunar landing”.
No one has been back to the moon since the last US Apollo landing in December 1972.
But not everyone is convinced – many web users on Friday questioned the decision to plough state funds into the ambitious programme when many Chinese cannot afford essentials such as education and medical treatment.
“I can’t afford to buy a home, see a doctor and pay for my child’s education. Whether we go into space or not really makes very little difference to me,” posted one on the news portal Netease.