Grace Ng – Straits Times
Beijing. China has picked two “divine” women to go on a space mission later this year.
Said to sport a flawless physique right down to pristine teeth and absolutely no body odor, the two female astronauts are part of a crew of seven shortlisted for the space mission.
But Beijing intends to keep their identities a secret until just before the Shenzhou IX spacecraft blasts off sometime between June and August. Shenzhou means “divine vessel.”
Still, media excitement about the women, who were picked from 15 candidates after years of gruelling training, has already begun to build up.
“How are these women picked? Comparatively, it’s like trying to find a bone in a chicken egg,” the official Xinhua news agency said last week in a report which shed light on the highly secretive mission and its mystery crew.
“Even scars on the skin, smell in the mouth, tooth decay and calluses on the feet are not allowed,” it said.
After all, even the tiniest imperfection could lead to inconvenience, if not disaster, in space, where harsh conditions may cause scars to bleed and the confined cabin may intensify unpleasant body smells, it explained.
The same demanding standards for tip-top physical and mental attributes apply both to the 15 women currently under training as well as their 30 male counterparts. All Chinese astronauts must have a problem-free medical history and no allergies.
“There must be no history of serious illness in the past three generations of their families,” an unnamed staff member at Nanjing Airforce 454 Hospital, who was not identified due to the sensitivity of the topic, was reported by Chinese media as saying.
The 45 men and women undergo the same basic training, from studying more than 50 academic subjects such as advanced mathematics, electrical and systems engineering, psychology and English, to strenuous drills.
They are said to train six days a week to build up their endurance and toughness. Some of their instructors have undergone courses at a Russian space training organization.
Observers say that it would not be surprising if China uses a few tips passed down from the former Soviet Union, which was the first to send a woman into space almost 50 years ago.
Former Chinese astronaut Li Qinglong has spoken publicly about his survival skills training in the wilderness in Russia.
Wearing only a thin layer of clothes, he had to stay outdoors for 48 hours in minus 50 deg C cold. Each meal consisted of only one compressed biscuit. He lost 2.5kg, Xinhua reported.
While it is unknown whether female astronauts are put through similarly harsh training, all of them will definitely have experienced the pain of childbirth.
All aspirants must be married, have children and be over 25 years old. This is to ensure that they are more mature physically and emotionally, Professor Xu Xianrong, a director at the People’s Liberation Army Air Force General Hospital, told an aviation seminar in Beijing in 2009.
“There is currently no information on the biological effects of space life on women, so we should be more cautious as this is the first time for China,” Xu was quoted by Beijing media as saying.
The age rule was why China’s first batch of female fighter jet pilots was not eligible for the selection process for spacewomen. Even though they likely met the criterion that each female astronaut should have at least 600 hours of flying experience, their average age was 23.
The two women and five men shortlisted will be trained in executing a spacecraft docking mission and conducting space experiments while in orbit.
Three will eventually be picked, the mission’s deputy commander-in-chief Niu Hongguang told reporters in Beijing last week.
It seems almost certain that at least one woman will be among the final three.
After all, there is already widespread praise in China for some strengths female astronauts have over their male counterparts.
As Pang Zhihao, deputy editor of Chinese magazine International Space put it: “Female astronauts have keener senses, a more meticulous heart and stronger communication and verbal skills than male astronauts.”
They are also better at “handling interpersonal relations” — a particularly important trait if Chinese astronauts are to travel to Mars one day, the Beijing Youth Daily said in a report.
This is because the journey to the red planet would be extremely long and tedious, so having both sexes on board could help smooth out any tension, it added.
Reprinted courtesy of Straits Times