Women will fill two of the seven vacancies as mainland space authorities screen candidates for the second generation of astronauts, according to state media. Of the 45 pilots from the air force on the list, one-third were female, a China News Service report said yesterday. Rumours that China would send a woman into space have been around since Colonel Yang Liwei became the country's first astronaut in 2003. The latest official confirmation was hailed by some domestic media as a signal that finally, the 'man era' of the Chinese space programme was about to end. But now the controversy at the China Astronaut Research and Training Centre, the Beijing headquarters of the astronauts, is over what role women will play in space, according to sources at the centre. Some researchers firmly believe women should have equal standing as pioneers in China's space conquest. They argue that adding women would not only expand the country's scientific database on human conditions during space travel but also stimulate engineers to work on more sophisticated spacecraft designs to address female needs. The more conservative camp of researchers, however, argues that space is a hazardous place and women should only go there after males have experienced all the risk and difficulties, developed enough skills and knowledge to survive and complete missions, and built a relatively safe and comfortable home for them. The discussion has been going on behind the scenes, but when the first female astronauts graduate and a decision about the crew must be made for the next flight, the conflict of opinion between the two camps will have to be resolved. The female candidates have a huge disadvantage, according to the report: while all the male candidates are top fighter pilots, the women have flown only cargo planes. Fighter pilots often perform aggressive manoeuvres with their supersonic craft, and their bodies bear extreme forces - sometimes eight times their weight - during take-off and re-entry. By contrast, a cargo plane pilot usually feels the pressure equivalent to - if not less than - a passenger jet's. 'That's certainly a disadvantage,' said a doctor in the pro-woman camp who could not give her name because she was not authorised to talk about the issue. 'We must keep in mind, though, that after proper training, a high school teacher can be a good astronaut,' she said, referring to the US Teacher in Space project. 'The disadvantage should not be a hurdle that prevents women from entering space ... there are papers about how the presence of women can relieve the stress of living in space. They are not vases.' Yang, now deputy director of the centre, said last year that a woman on the crew would increase the complexity and cost of a mission, if not compromise it. Despite rapid development in the past decade, China's space programme was still primitive compared with those of the US and Russia, he said. 'There's not a task that a woman can do but a man can't. As far as technical goals are concerned, we don't have an urgent need for female astronauts in the near future. I don't think it will happen in a decade.'