China eyes sending 1st female astronaut to new space station

Chinese astronaut Wang Yaping spoke at an event in 2017 after her 2013 flight; she may become the first woman to visit China's new space station.
Chinese astronaut Wang Yaping spoke at an event in 2017 after her 2013 flight; she may become the first woman to visit China's new space station. (Image credit: K. Y. Cheng/South China Morning Post via Getty Images)

One of China's few women astronauts is expected to be named among the crew of the upcoming Shenzhou 13 mission to the Chinese space station.

The three-member crew of Shenzhou 12 just returned to Earth following 90 days aboard the Tianhe module of the Tiangong space station, but China is already gearing up for the next visit to its new orbital outpost. The Tianzhou 3 cargo spacecraft launched and docked with Tianhe on Monday (Sept. 20), carrying nearly 13,000 lbs. (6,000 kilograms) of supplies, and the next crew is expected to launch on Shenzhou 13 around Oct. 3 from Jiuquan in the Gobi Desert. 

While the crew has not been officially announced, Chinese media are openly discussing the inclusion of a female astronaut. 

Related: The latest news about China's space program

This assumption appears to be well founded. The backup crew for the Shenzhou 12 mission, which sent Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo to orbit, were Zhai Zhigang, Wang Yaping and Ye Guangfu. 

Zhai flew back in 2008, when he commanded the Shenzhou 7 mission. Ye has yet to fly, but he participated in the European Space Agency's Cooperative Adventure for Valuing and Exercising Human Behavior and Performance Skills (CAVES) astronaut training program in July 2016, notably alongside NASA astronauts.

Wang Yaping meanwhile became the second Chinese woman in space in 2013 on Shenzhou 10, which visited Tiangong 1, a space lab which was designed as a testbed for the much larger Tianhe module. During the mission, Wang delivered a lecture to school children from orbit.

Wang was part of the backup crew for Shenzhou 9; that backup lineup then got the go-ahead for Shenzhou 10. Wang is also known to have been in training earlier this year for space station missions.

If confirmed for Shenzhou 13, Wang would become the first woman to visit the Chinese Space Station. Her expected participation is notable, given that China's astronaut corps is predominantly men. Just two of 12 Chinese astronauts to have flown to space so far have been women. The first was Liu Yang on Shenzhou 9 in 2012, a year before Wang's own flight.

The situation is likely to become even more male-dominated. China completed a new astronaut selection round in 2020, after for the first time opening applications to as well as air force pilots. However, of the 18 selected trainees, just one was a woman.

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Andrew Jones
Contributing Writer

Andrew is a freelance space journalist with a focus on reporting on China's rapidly growing space sector. He began writing for in 2019 and writes for SpaceNews, IEEE Spectrum, National Geographic, Sky & Telescope, New Scientist and others. Andrew first caught the space bug when, as a youngster, he saw Voyager images of other worlds in our solar system for the first time. Away from space, Andrew enjoys trail running in the forests of Finland. You can follow him on Twitter @AJ_FI.