China may this year send its first woman into space.
Two woman astronauts received intensive training for a mission scheduled for summer, according to a senior space expert.
Qi Faren , former chief designer of the Shenzhou spaceships, said at a seminar in Guangzhou on Friday that two women were on the list to be among the three astronauts to board the Shenzhou IX spaceship, Beijing Evening News reported.
'We all hope they can make it and they hope so too,' Qi was quoted as saying. 'But whether they do depends on the final screening.'
Another newspaper, the Beijing News, said authorities had one female candidate in mind, but its source refused to give further details.
With the launch timed for between June and August, the Shenzhou IX would rendezvous and dock with the currently unmanned Tiangong-1 space lab orbiting the earth.
The 'hybrid' spacecraft would then create the largest-ever accommodation in space for Chinese astronauts to live and work in.
In an earlier interview with the South China Morning Post, China's first astronaut, Yang Liwei , said the biggest issue preventing a Chinese woman working in space was not a lack of physical strength but the problem of intimacy.
'In the small cabin of a spaceship we can't move around without touching one another,' he said.
'Guys may feel a little awkward but that can be handled. The presence of a woman would be too much.'
Earlier reports by mainland media said the screening criteria for woman astronauts differed considerably from those for men.
However, Jiao Weixin, professor at the school of earth and space sciences at Peking University, said yesterday that there was no gender bias in the selection of astronauts.
'China's selection of female astronauts follows in the footsteps of the United States and Russia,' he said. 'The special requirements are set to protect women's safety in space and ensure the success of the mission.'
The professor said woman astronauts must be mothers because they might face a higher risk of infertility after exposure to radiation in space.
Earlier reports said that there were about 15 women and 30 men in training for the mission and that all of them must have clear medical histories and no allergies.
After the space rendezvous, the astronauts will move temporarily into Tiangong-1, where they will perform scientific experiments.
The mission is the latest step in a programme aimed at giving China a permanent space station by 2020.
Since sending its first astronaut into space in 2003, China has conducted several manned missions, but has never included a woman. The former Soviet Union sent its first woman into space almost 50 years ago.
In November, the unmanned Shenzhou VIII spacecraft returned to earth after completing two space dockings with Tiangong-1 in the nation's first-ever 'space kiss' that brought together the two vessels in a difficult procedure conducted in a high-speed orbit.