Chinese astronaut Zhai Zhigang waves from outside his Shenzhou 7 spacecraft September 27, 2008. He became his country's first spacewalker.
Credit: China National Space Administration
China has selected two military air transport pilots as its first female astronauts, the country?s state media reported Wednesday. The only hitch? The women had to be hitched ? as in married ? to make the cut.
Zhang Jianqi, the former deputy commander of China?s human spaceflight program, told the state-run Xinhua News Agency that aside from being married to their respective spouses, the two female astronauts met the exact same criteria as the country?s male spaceflyers.
"In the selection, we had almost the same requirements on women candidates as those for men, but the only difference was that they must be married, as we believe married women would be more physically and psychologically mature," Xinhua quoted Zhang as saying during a break at an annual parliamentary session.
Zhang also said that female astronauts may also have more ?endurance and circumspection? than their male counterparts, Xinhua reported.
The women are both pilots with the People's Liberation Army Air Force. They were selected alongside five men as China?s second class of astronauts as the country pushes forward with its manned spaceflight program. The addition of seven new recruits boosts China?s total astronaut corps to 21 spaceflyers.
The China National Space Administration selected its first 14 astronauts, also called taikonauts, in the mid-1990s.
China is the third country after Russia and the United States to build spacecraft capable of launching humans into orbit.
The country?s spaceship of choice is the Shenzhou (Chinese for "Divine Vessel"), a three-module vehicle derived from Russia?s workhorse Soyuz craft. But unlike the Soyuz, the Shenzhou has an orbital module equipped with solar arrays, allowing it to stay in orbit long after its crew returns to Earth.
China launched its first manned spaceflight ? the one-man Shenzhou 5 flight ? in 2003. A two-man Shenzhou 6 mission followed in 2005, leading to a three-man Shenzhou 7 spaceflight in September 2008, which included China?s first spacewalk by astronaut Zhai Zhigang.
In 2011, China plans to launch Tiangong 1 ? the first module of a new space station ? from the Jiuquan space center in the Gobi desert.
The country is also planning to launch its second moon orbiter, called Chang?e 2, in October to search for potential landing sites for future robotic lunar probes. A third moon mission, Chang?e 3, is slated to launch in 2013, Xinhua quoted Ye Peiujian ? who designed the first moon probe (Chang?e 1) and is commanding the second mission ? as saying.
Chinese space officials have also said a new heavy-lift rocket, called Long March 5, is also in development and due to make a launch debut in 2014. The new rocket should be capable of hauling up to 55,000 pounds of payload into low Earth orbit, they added.