Beijing: China may fly a woman astronaut into space next year as it embarks on an ambitious programme for the next decade which includes a mission to land a rover on the moon and setting up a space station with a cargo spaceship to transport supplies.
China plans to fly two more spacecraft next year to improve the rendezvous and docking technologies and one of it will be a manned one, Yang Liwei, deputy director of the China Manned Space Engineering Office said, hinting that it could as well be a woman.
China plans to carry out its first space docking between two unmanned vehicles this year, followed by one manned and one unmanned space missions next year as part of its efforts to set up a space station.
"Two to three astronauts will be sent to space in that manned mission next year," he was quoted by the state-run China Daily as saying.
Fei Junlong, leader of China`s astronaut team said that the two women astronauts and five men astronauts – the second batch of Chinese astronauts, who were selected last year - have to take a three-year training course before carrying out space missions.
But Yang said that there are possibilities for the women to join next year`s mission.
The two women astronauts, both pilots from the People`s Liberation Army Air Force, are the first women astronauts in China.
The 14 astronauts in the first batch, who were recruited in 1997, are all men.
So far, six of them have flown into space in three different missions.
Yang also revealed that China had spent some 20 billion yuan (USD three billion) on the first stage of the manned space programme.
The first stage`s goal was to launch a manned spacecraft, which succeeded with the launch and return of Shenzhou V with Yang Liwei on board in 2003.
The second step is to make technology breakthrough in extra-vehicular activities as well as space rendezvous and docking of spacecrafts.
It also includes the launch of a space lab and finding solutions for astronauts to make short-term stays in space.
The extravehicular activities were completed in 2008 as astronaut Zhai Zhigang did a space walk out of Shenzhou VII spacecraft.
The third step is to establish a space station where astronauts will stay for long periods.
Last week, China Manned Space Engineering Office announced its plan of building a 60-ton space station and asked the public to help come up with a resonant name and logo for the space station.
"As the future missions will be more complicated than the first step, the government investment in the programme will grow along," Yang said.
"In the coming Shenzhou VIII mission, China and Germany will jointly carry out a biological cultivation experiment in the spacecraft," he said, adding China and
France is also discussing carrying out experiments in China`s space lab.
China also plans to send yet another probe mission in 2013 to land a rover on the moon to explore its surface.