China Includes First Women in Search for New Astronauts
A Chinese taikonaut bears the flag of the People's Republic of China during the Shenzhou 7 mission's spacewalk on September 27, 2008.
Credit: CCTV

For the first time, China has included women among the final candidates for the country?s newest class of astronauts.

The China National Space Agency is in the process of selecting its second batch of astronaut candidates, and has narrowed down the pool to 30 men and 15 women, the official state news agency Xinhua reported Thursday. Ultimately, China plans to pick five men and two women as final candidates to join the country's space program as taikonauts.

"It is the first time women have been up for selection in China's space development," authorities said, according to Xinhua.

China's fledging space program has already launched three manned missions, the first of which lifted off in 2003. Last year, Chinese astronaut Zhai Zhigang carried out a 20-minute foray beyond his Shenzhou 7 spacecraft - his nation's first spacewalk.

China is only the third country, after Russia and the United States, to independently launch humans into space.

The 45 preliminary candidates for the second class of Chinese spaceflyers are between the ages of 27 and 34, and all are Air Force pilots for the People's Liberation Army. The male candidates are all fighter pilots and the female candidates are aero-transport pilots, authorities said. Some flew rescue missions after the massive Wenchuan earthquake in May 2008 in China's Sichuan province.

They "all master excellent flight skills and boast great psychological quality," authorities said according to Xinhua.

The candidates will now undergo another round of tests, including physiological and psychological checks, to further whittle down the pool.

China is reportedly preparing to launch a military space station into orbit by late 2010. The 8-ton Tiangong 1 laboratory is slated to be the first of multiple stations planned. The unmanned Shenzhou 8 mission is scheduled to dock with the station sometime in 2011.

There is also speculation that the nation is pursuing the goal of landing an astronaut on the moon, a feat only NASA so far has accomplished.