China may send its first woman into space this year after including female astronauts in the team training for its first manned spacedocking, state media said Monday.
Three astronauts will blast off on board Shenzhou ("Divine Vessel") IX between June and August to conduct a manual docking with the Tiangong-1 module currently orbiting the Earth, Xinhua news agency said, quoting an official with China's manned space programme.
A team of astronauts, including an unspecified number of women, are training for the docking mission and the three-person crew will be selected at the last minute, said Niu Hongguang, deputy commander-in-chief.
After the space rendezvous, the astronauts will move temporarily into Tiangong-1 ("Heavenly Palace"), 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.
In November, the unmanned Shenzhou VIII spacecraft returned to Earth after completing two space dockings with Tiangong-1 in the nation's first ever hard-to-master "space kiss", bringing together two vessels in high speed orbit.
Mastering space docking technology is a delicate manoeuvre that the Russians and Americans successfully completed in the 1960s.
Tiangong-1, China's first space station module, was launched in September.
China sees its space programme as a symbol of its global stature, growing technical expertise, and the Communist Party's success in turning around the fortunes of the once poverty-stricken nation.
The current programme aims to provide China with a space station in which a crew can live independently for several months, as at the old Russian Mir facility or the International Space Station.
China sent its first person into space in 2003 and has since conducted several manned missions, but has never included a woman.