Countdown for first Chinese woman in space
The Shenzhou-IX spacecraft is due to lift off today - possibly signalling the start of the countdown to the first Hongkonger in orbit.
Three Chinese astronauts, including the country's first spacewoman, are set to blast off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in Inner Mongolia at 6.37pm.
And the excitement surrounding the launch increased with the news that the manned space programme is keen to involve expertise from Hong Kong and Macau.
Programme spokeswoman Wu Ping said: 'We will need flight engineers and payload specialists for future missions. I believe there will be astronauts from Hong Kong and Macau on board Shenzhou spaceships flying into space.'
Wu said the space programme would also welcome the participation of more Hong Kong and Macau scientists in the development of the orbiting Tiangong-I space laboratory and China's planned space station.
Today's launch will see People's Liberation Army Air Force senior colonels Jing Haipeng and Liu Wang and PLA Air Force Major Liu Yang take off on a two-week mission to dock the spacecraft with the Tiangong-I laboratory.
It's an operation described as being as delicate as threading a needle.
They will spend 10 days in the laboratory module, the longest stay in space yet attempted by Chinese astronauts. Liu Yang will become the first Chinese woman in space. The 34-year-old former military cargo plane pilot will mainly oversee medical and scientific experiments, even though she is not a trained scientist.
She said she felt grateful and honoured to represent hundreds of millions of Chinese women and added: 'I would like to thank the motherland for this opportunity.'
Liu Yang said she had been through intensive training and was prepared and confident.
And though the mission would involve sophisticated operations, she said she wanted to take time to enjoy the ride. She said: 'I want to feel the journey with my heart, to observe the earth, to have a better look at our beautiful homeland.'
Jing, 46, will command the spacecraft. The veteran astronaut flew with the Shenzhou-VII mission four years ago and was praised for his quick and accurate judgment.
A fire hazard warning that went off during the mission almost ruined the first Chinese spacewalk, conducted by two crewmates.
But Jing quickly decided the warning was false and the spacewalk was allowed to continue.
Jing said the three crew for the latest mission had worked 'as one person' during training and did not even need to talk to communicate.
'Just eye contact, a facial expression or a gesture will allow us to understand each other,' he said.
It is 43-year-old Liu Wang's first mission. He trained at the same time as China's first astronaut, Yang Liwei , 14 years ago but never got the chance to go into space.
He will be in charge of the manual docking operation, a job that Jing described as 'as delicate as running a thread through the eye of a needle'.
The authorities said the successful completion of the Shenzhou-IX mission would indicate China's 'complete' acquisition of the docking technology and be a 'decisive' step towards the completion of a space station by 2020.