Hong Kong women may soon be reaching for the heavens - literally. From next year, the mainland's space programme will begin training women - including possibly those from Hong Kong - for manned missions to orbit the Earth, land on the moon and even travel to Mars. Captain Ellen Yan Suk-yin, the Government Flying Services' only female captain, said she would jump at the opportunity to join. 'I think it sounds quite challenging. Hong Kong's a small place and I never imagined that we would ever have such an opportunity,' she said. Lee Lai-shan, a 1996 Olympic windsurfing gold medalist, said she might be tempted. 'I think China's wish to train its first female astronaut is a good thing. Most astronauts are men and it's good to give women a chance too,' she said. The second-in-command of the mainland's manned space programme said recruitment for female astronauts would start next year. He said women from around the country, including Hong Kong and Macau, could apply. 'Healthy common people can become astronauts for space missions after specialised training, thanks to China's improved space training skills and, women, of course, will be included,' Hu Shixiang said. Tsang Gar-yin, of the Association for the Advancement of Feminism, said: 'It's something to be happy about. Traditionally, many positions and careers are not open to women and not enough was done to encourage them to have a go, but opportunities are now opening up.' Mr Hu said the recruitment would not be cosmetic. 'Our selection of women astronauts will not merely be a symbolic image project.' The first group of female astronauts will undertake three to four years of physical and space-flight training. Mr Hu did not spell out academic qualifications or experience that were required, nor give details on the selection process. Space technology has significantly improved on the mainland and this has helped lower the physical requirements for astronauts, especially after the successful mission of Yang Liwei, who became the country's first astronaut orbiting the Earth last October.