JIUQUAN, China >> China will launch three astronauts, including a mother of one who flies transport planes, to live and work on a space station for about a week, a major step in its goal of becoming only the third nation with a permanent base orbiting Earth.
Liu Yang, a 34-year-old, volleyball-playing air force pilot, and two male colleagues will be launched Saturday in the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft that will dock with the bus-sized Tiangong 1 space module now orbiting 322 kilometers (200 miles) above the Earth.
Two of the astronauts will live and work inside the module to test its life-support systems while the third will remain in the capsule to deal with unexpected emergencies. State media have said the mission will last about 10 days before the astronauts travel back to Earth in the capsule that will land on the Western Chinese grasslands with the help of parachutes.
The official Xinhua News Agency announced Friday that Liu would be joined by male astronauts Jing Haipeng and Liu Wang and that the launch would take place at 6:37 p.m. (1237 GMT) Saturday.
Success in docking — and in living and working aboard the Tiangong 1 — would smooth the way for more ambitious projects, such as sending a man to the moon, and add to China’s international prestige in line with its growing economic prowess.
If completed, the mission will put China alongside the United States and Russia as the only countries to have independently maintained space stations, a huge boost to Beijing’s ambitions of becoming a space power. It already is in the exclusive three-nation club to have launched a spacecraft with astronauts on its own.
The mission “demonstrates China’s commitment to its long-term human spaceflight plan,” said Joan Johnson-Freese, an expert on the Chinese space program at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island.
She said its success “will demonstrate the technological capabilities requisite for a future permanent space station.”
Still, that is some years away. The Tiangong 1 is only a prototype, and the plan is to eventually replace it with a permanent — and bigger — space station due for completion around 2020.
The permanent station will weigh about 60 tons, slightly smaller than NASA’s Skylab of the 1970s and about one-sixth the size of the 16-nation International Space Station.
Analysts say China’s exclusion from the ISS, largely on objections from the United States, was one of the key spurs for it to pursue an independent program 20 years ago, which reaches a high point with Saturday’s launch.
The three astronauts will conduct scientific and engineering tasks on Tiangong, or Heavenly Palace, which was put into orbit in September.
Morris Jones, an Australian writer and space analyst, said they will also conduct experiments, likely including physiological tests on themselves, in anticipation of longer stays in future.
China first launched a man into space in 2003 followed by a two-man mission in 2005 and a three-man trip in 2008 that featured China’s first space walk.
In November 2011, the unmanned Shenzhou 8, successfully docked with the Tiangong 1 by remote control — twice to show the durability of the system.
While operating with limited resources, China’s space program is a source of huge national pride and enjoys top-level political and military backing. This has left it largely immune from the budgetary pressures affecting NASA, although China doesn’t say what it spends on the program.
The selection of the first female astronaut is giving the program an additional publicity boost. State media have gushed this week about Liu, pointing out that she once successfully landed her plane after a bird strike disabled one of its engines.
As with China’s other female astronaut candidates, Liu is married and has a child, a requirement because the space program worries that exposure to space radiation may affect fertility.