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article imageWhat does it take to be China's first woman in space?

By Yukio Strachan     Jun 14, 2012 in World
She's in top physical shape. She's a skilled fighter pilot. If these traits seem important for China's first female astronaut to have before launching into space this Saturday, so is this: No body odor.
Either Liu Yang or Wang Yaping will become the nation's first woman in space, said Qi Faren, former chief designer of the Shenzhou spaceship series, Shanghai Daily writes.
But as is China's custom, the name of the first female taikonaut remains a closely guarded secret; not expected to be fully confirmed until a few hours before the Shenzhou mission launches on Saturday.
But that doesn't stop leaks to the media.
Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force fighter pilot Liu Yang, is widely believed to be the one to earn a seat in the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft fired into orbit by a Long March rocket fired from the Jiuquan space base in the Gobi desert,the AFP reports.
Called a "hero pilot," the 34-year-old showed a "rare calm" in 2003 when her plane was struck by 21 pigeons splattering the windshield of her plane with blood.
Indeed, her plane had flown straight into a flock of pigeons, which wreaked havoc on the aircraft. The right engine was fast shutting down, its turbine blade snapped into two. The air inlet was almost completely blocked with plumage and flesh.
Calmly, she radioed the control tower, kept her eyes on the runway and landed the plane safely. When engineers checked the plane, they found 21 dead pigeons.
According to SINA English, in China, pilots with the experience of dealing with emergencies are preferred for astronaut selection.
No body odor allowed
But there's more to astronaut selection, that is, for women.
According to the Globe and Mail, choosing the female astronaut appears to based on some bizarre criteria that were not applied to the Shenzhou-9’s two male crewmembers.
Not true, according to officials, the BBC says. The selection criteria for female astronauts are similar to those used for men, "the only difference is that for female astronauts, married ones are preferred because they are more mature both mentally and physically".
But The Guardian, in a 2010 article on this topic, wrote that female astronauts must already be mothers. Now, the reason for this doesn't relate to their multi-tasking abilities, said Xu Xianrong, a professor with the General Hospital of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force. Officials are concerned that space flight might affect their fertility.
"It's out of the consideration of being responsible for the female pilots," Xu told the state news agency Xinhua at the time. "Though there is little evidence on how the space experience will affect the female constitution, we have to be extra cautious. After all, it's unprecedented in China."
Now, two years later, the Jinghua Times quotes Wang Xianmin, an official with China's space program, who insists that there is no requirement that female astronauts must already be mothers,The BBC writes.
Major Liu and Captain Wang both have one child each.
But female astronauts must not have body odor or scars, said Pang Zhihao of Space International, published by the China Academy of Space Technology.
Zhihao said a scar might open and start bleeding in space and the cramped conditions would intensify body odor.
"They even must not have decayed teeth because any small flaw might cause great trouble or a disaster in space," said Zhihao, Shanghai Daily writes.
Space station designed for females
But just as female astronauts had extra qualifying criteria from their male counterparts, China's Tiangong-1 space module has been specially designed for females.
Despite the module being only 15 cubic meters inside, the female astronaut will have a separate toilet and bedroom that is soundproof to protect her privacy, Zhihao told Shanghai Daily.
"She will also be able to take a sponge bath with more water supply than that of her male counterparts, according to international conventions, and even bring some specially made cosmetics into space," said Pang.
China launched its first person into space in 2003 and has since conducted several manned missions, but has never included a woman. But after including female astronauts in the team training for its first human space docking, the People’s Republic of China decided to do the same for space, Gulf Daily News Sunday says.
As the Guardian notes, if the launch goes ahead as scheduled, it will be 49 years since the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova, a Russian described by the New York Times at the time as a "heavy-set parachutist" made her historic flight.
A photo of Yang is here. Photographs of the two finalists women are here.
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