China has sent its first woman into outer space today, prompting a surge of national pride as the rising power takes its latest step towards putting a space station in orbit within the decade.
Liu Yang, a 33-year-old fighter pilot, joined two other astronauts aboard the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft when it successfully launched from a remote Gobi Desert launch site earlier today.
The female astronaut and two male crew members - veteran astronaut Jing Haipeng and newcomer Liu Wang - are to dock the spacecraft with a prototype space lab launched last year in a key step toward building a permanent space station.
Speaking to the official Xinhua news agency, Liu said she "yearns to experience the wondrous, weightless environment of space, see the Earth and gaze upon the motherland".
ITV News' Tom Barton reports:
– Astronaut Liu Yang
Thank you for the confidence put in my by the motherland and the people, for giving me this chance to represent China's millions of women by going into space
Medical experts who helped select the crew of the Shenzhou 9, have said that female astronauts must meet the same criteria as men, and then some, according to the China Daily.
Female Chinese astronauts must be married and preferably be mothers, the newspaper said, citing concerns that radiation would "harm their fertility".
Rendez-vous and docking exercises between the two vessels will be an important hurdle in China's efforts to acquire the technological and logistical skills needed to run a full space lab that can house astronauts for long stretches.
Beijing is still far from catching up with the established space superpowers: the United States and Russia. But the docking mission will be the latest show of China's growing prowess in space.