Military pilot Lieutenant Liu Yang, centre, chats with other participants at a symposium in Beijing

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For Lieutenant Liu Yang, life is likely to change for ever on Saturday. The 33-year-old military pilot is expected to become the first Chinese woman to fly into space when her country launches the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft.

The main mission for Lt Liu and two male colleagues is to steer the Shenzhou, or “divine vessel” close to the Tiangong, or “heavenly palace”, a module that was shot into space in September and isorbiting the planet, and then link them together manually – an exercise that China needs to master in preparation for its own space station.

The docking will be “a significant step” for the country, said Zhou Jianping, chief engineer of the China Manned Space Engineering Office.

Every detail of the launch is being covered extensively by Chinese state media. Xinhua, the official news agency, dutifully reported on Friday that the Shenzhou 9 had its final pre-launch exercise on Thursday. State newspapers also published hagiographies of Lt Liu this week. They praised her as a hero pilot who once managed an emergency landing of a military transport aircraft that had collided with a flock of pigeons and characterised her with a combination of some of the features held in highest esteem in Chinese culture – modesty, intelligence, kindness and perseverance.

“I thank the motherland and the people for the trust they put in me. I feel limitless honour that I can represent the hundreds of millions of Chinese women in space,” Lt Liu said in remarks broadcast by CCTV, the national broadcaster.

But on Weibo, China’s Twitter equivalent which provides the country’s least effectively censored public space, many greeted this with sarcasm.

“So I am being represented again,” said one user under the name Woxiande.”I declare on behalf of myself that I never wanted to go to space. Go if you have to but don’t go on my behalf.”

Others questioned the cost of the programme.

”Can’t we spend taxpayers’ money on more useful things like education, health, pensions?” Aone netizen asked. “It is not time yet for us, such a poor country, to travel to space!”

While the launch and the first female astronaut mark big moments for China, the country is following in the footsteps of others decades late.

Valentina Tereshkova from the Soviet Union was the first woman to travel into space as early as 1963. The US had its first woman astronaut, Sally Ride, in 1983.

The distance to the two first space powers is similarly vast when it comes to the technology behind the current launch. Beijing shot the Tiangong into space last year and subsequently practised automatic dockings with it, to be followed by the manned docking flight now. The goal is to learn the procedures needed for placing and operating a space station in orbit, which China aims to do by 2020.

In comparison, the Soviet Union’s space station Salyut entered orbit in 1971, while the US’s Skylab went up in 1973.

But what both China and space experts abroad look at is not the past but the future. If the Chinese space station goes up on time, it will become the only such facility – the International Space station is scheduled to retire that year.

Moreover, Beijing’s space programme is taking off just as Washington is forced to reduce funding for Nasa. Last year, the US space shuttle fleet retired after the final flight of the Atlantis.

Additional reporting by Zhao Tianqi

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.

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