China’s First Woman Astronaut: Progress or Propaganda?
At 2:30 am GMT on Monday, June 18, the Chinese spaceship Shenzhou-9 docked with the Tiangong-1 orbital space lab, the first time ever with a crew. Aboard the spacecraft was 33-year-old Liu Yang, the first female Chinese astronaut—or taikonaut—in space. The mission was only China’s fourth manned flight.
The country’s space program got off to a slow start in the mid 1950s before truly bursting on to the scene just 9 years ago with a day-long orbital flight. Since then, China has been moving at a steady clip to catch up to the US and Russia. Knocking down milestone after milestone, the emerging superpower shows no signs of slowing, even if it has to go it alone.
The Tiangong 1, which was launched last year, is due to be replaced by a permanent space station around 2020. That station is to weigh about 54 tonnes, slightly smaller than NASA’s Skylab of the 1970s and about one-sixth the size of the 16-nation International Space Station.
China has only limited cooperation in space with other nations and is excluded from the ISS, largely on objections from the United States.” reports the Associated Press.
The decision to send a woman taikonaut into space is an important symbol for gender equality in a country that is, in many important respects, unequal.
Upon hearing China’s space program spokesperson Wu Ping say that sending Liu was necessary to satisfy “the expectation of the public,” space historian Amy Teitel is reminded of the flight of the Soviet Union’s first female cosmonaut, Valentina Tereshkova.
The Soviets sought to achieve firsts, continually besting the Americans who were taking a slow and deliberate approach towards spaceflight… Seeking to add another mark to the list of firsts, Sergei Korolev, the famed Soviet Chief Designer responsible for the country’s early successes in space, suggested launching a female cosmonaut. It was the perfect propaganda move promote the idea that the Soviet system valued its women equally to its men.
Ideally, the China National Space Administration’s decision wasn’t designed just to chase “FIRST!!!”s and this can truly be seen as one small step for women, and one giant leap for humankind.
More from Smithsonian.com:
Flying With America’s Most Famous Female Aviators