JIUQUAN, China – China launched its most ambitious space mission yet on Saturday, carrying its first female astronaut and two male colleagues in an attempt to dock with an orbiting module and work on board for more than a week.
The Shenzhou 9 capsule lifted off as scheduled at 6:37 p.m. (1237 GMT) evening from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on the edge of the Gobi Desert. All systems functioned normally and, just over 10 minutes later, it opened its solar panels and entered orbit.
Female astronaut Liu Yang, 33, 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.
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 any unexpected emergencies.
China is hoping to join the United States and Russia as the only countries to send independently maintained space stations into orbit. It is already one of just three nations to have launched manned spacecraft on their own.
Another manned mission to the module is planned for later this year, while possible future missions could include sending a man to the moon.
The program is a source of enormous national pride for China, reflecting its rapid economic and technological progress and ambition to rank among the world's leading nations.
At a sending off ceremony for the astronauts, the ruling Communist Party's No. 2 official, Wu Bangguo, told the crew, "The country and people await your victorious return."
The module, called Tiangong 1, is only a prototype, and the plan is to replace it with a larger permanent space station due for completion around 2020.
That station is to 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.
China has only limited cooperation in space with other nations and its exclusion from the ISS, largely on objections from the United States, was one of the key spurs for it to pursue an independent space program 20 years ago.
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 the country's first space walk.
In November 2011, the unmanned Shenzhou 8 successfully docked twice with Tiangong 1 by remote control.
The selection of the first female astronaut is giving the space program an additional publicity boost.
"Arranging for women astronauts to fly is not only a must for the development of human spaceflight, but also the expectation of the public," space program spokeswoman Wu Ping said. "This is a landmark event."
Speaking Friday, Liu Yang said: "We won't let you down. We will work together and successfully complete this mission."