China plans manned space launch this month

BEIJING — China will launch three astronauts this month to dock with an orbiting experimental module, and the crew might include its first female space traveler, a government news agency said Saturday.

A rocket carrying the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft was moved to a launch pad in China’s desert northwest on Saturday for the mid-June flight, the Xinhua News Agency said, citing an space program spokesman.

The three-member crew will dock with and live in the Tiangong 1 orbital module launched last year, Xinhua said. The government has not said how long the mission will last.

Xinhua cited Niu Hongguang, deputy commander in chief of the manned space program, as saying the crew “might include female astronauts.”

The government said in 2010 that two female air force pilots had joined the astronaut program but has disclosed no other details.

China’s space program has made steady progress since a 2003 launch that made it only the third nation to put a man in space on its own. Two more manned missions have followed, one including a space walk.

China completed its first space rendezvous in November when the unmanned Shenzhou 8 docked with the Tiangong 1 by remote control. Tiangong 1 was launched on Sept. 29.

Over the next few days, scientists will test the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft, the Long March 2F rocket and ground systems, Xinhua said.

During the flight, one crew member will remain aboard the Shenzhou 9 “as a precautionary measure in case of emergency” while the others enter Tiangong 1, Xinhua said.

China has scheduled two space docking missions for this year and plans to complete a manned space station around 2020 to replace Tiangong 1. At about 60 tons, the Chinese station will be considerably smaller than the 16-nation International Space Station.

Beijing launched its independent space station program after being turned away from the International Space Station, largely due to U.S. objections. Washington is wary of the Chinese program’s military links and of sharing technology with an economic and political rival.

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