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Want to be a female taikonaut in China? You better smell good, and no scars

People watch the Long March-2F rocket carrying the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft which moves to the launch pad at the Jiuquan launch center in Jiuquan, China's northwest Gansu province, Saturday, June 9, 2012.

Associated Press

In the coming days, the People's Republic of China will become the eighth country to see one of its female citizens in space, and just the third country to put them there with its own technology.

But the name of the first female taikonaut remains a closely guarded secret in the countdown to the expected launch of the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft on Saturday. And the woman who is sure to be hailed as a Chinese national hero as soon as she reaches orbit appears to have been chosen based on some bizarre criteria that were not applied to the Shenzhou-9's two male crewmembers.

According to several of China's top space experts, to be considered for the mission, female taikonauts needed to be married and to have given birth naturally. Xu Xianrong, a professor with the General Hospital of the People's Liberation Army Air Force, said recently that the additional qualifications would "ensure [the woman's] body and mental condition was mature enough." (All taikonaut candidates are chosen from the ranks of the PLA Air Force's fighter pilots.)

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Such criteria would have excluded Roberta Bondar, who in 1992 became the first Canadian woman in space when the United States space shuttle Discovery blasted into orbit. Ms. Bondar remains unmarried at age 66.

The first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova of the Soviet Union, only got married to fellow cosmonaut Andrian Nikolayev six months after she flew on the Vostok-6 mission on June 16, 1963. (Ms. Tereshkova made history 49 years to the day before Saturday's planned launch of the Shenzhou-9.)

"There's no evidence that shows space life impacts women physiologically, but after all this is the first time for China [to send a woman into space]. We must do it more carefully," Prof. Xu said in remarks carried by China National Radio on Monday.

Major Liu Yang and Captain Wang Yaping, the two women who have reportedly emerged as the finalists from a group of seven female taikonauts that began training in 2009, are both 34-year-old married mothers, with one child each. "They are selected as members of the first batch of female astronauts in China because of their excellent flight skills and psychological quality," the official Xinhua newswire reported.

Major Liu and Captain Wang also appear to have been subjected to further screening that would seem to have little to do with their capabilities. According to a recent issue of Space International magazine, which is produced by the state-run China Academy of Space Technology and thus seen as representing the government's view of the space program, any women chosen for space missions had to be odour-free and have flawless skin.

Female taikonauts "even must not have decayed teeth because any small flaw might cause great trouble or a disaster in space," Pang Zhihao, the managing editor of Space International said in remarks printed by the official China Daily newspaper. A scar might open and start bleeding in space, he explained, while cramped conditions would "intensify body odour." (Smelly men didn't seem to be a problem for Mr. Pang.)

While Major Liu and Captain Wang have far less training than their male counterparts – less than three years of preparation versus the standard 14 years – Mr. Pang noted female astronauts tend to be "keen and sensitive with better communication skills than their male counterparts."

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Mr. Pang refused to clarify his remarks when contacted Monday by The Globe and Mail. "We have regulations. I'm not allowed to accept interviews from the foreign media," he said when reached by telephone.

The South China Morning Post reported Monday that Major Liu, who hails from northeastern Jilin province, "is known for being tough… . When she made her first skydive, she did not immediately call her family to tell them she was safe." Meanwhile Captain Wang, from coastal Shandong province, "registered the top scores in the aviation theory examination for two consecutive years."

An article on the website of the China Academy of Space Technology said that whichever woman was not chosen for the Shenzhou-9 trip would likely be selected for the subsequent Shenzhou-10 mission.

The Shenzhou-9 is already in place at its Gobi Desert launch pad, atop the Long March 2-F rocket that will carry it into space Saturday, conditions permitting. The planned 10-day mission is a significant step forward for China's space program. If all goes well, the crew will carry out the first manned docking with the Tiangong-1, a laboratory module that was put into orbit last fall and which Beijing hopes will eventually serve as the basis for its own space station.

While space pioneers the United States and Russia have scaled back their extraterrestrial ambitions in recent years, China has been rapidly expanded its space program since 2003, when it first put a man into space.

Beijing wants to have its space station operational by 2020, around the same time when funding runs out for the multi-nation International Space Station that was launched in 1998. A manned moon expedition – which would be the first by any country since 1972 – is planned for sometime between 2025 and 2030.

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