China is gearing up to send its first woman astronaut into space in a launch scheduled for Saturday, official media reported.
She will join two other astronauts, called taikonauts in China, on a mission aboard the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft that will dock with the Tiangong space lab module, already in orbit.
Liu Yang, 33, a fighter pilot from the central province of Henan, will join the crew of three aboard the spacecraft, amid huge fanfare from official media and patriotic netizens.
The Shenzhou-9 is scheduled to lift off from a remote Gobi Desert launch site on Saturday evening, and will attempt the first manned docking procedure with the Tiangong, which is an experimental module widely regarded as a first step towards China's first full-blown space-station.
Liu, a major in China's air force, told a news conference on Friday that she was "grateful" for the opportunity.
"When I was a pilot, I flew in the sky. Now I am an astronaut, I will fly in space. That will be a higher and farther flight," Liu told reporters, alongside fellow crew members Jing Haipeng and Liu Wang.
The three astronauts will board the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft on Saturday at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwestern China to fulfill China's first manned space docking mission, the English-language China Daily newspaper reported.
"I am grateful to the motherland and the people. I feel honored to fly into space on behalf of hundreds of millions of female Chinese citizens," the paper quoted Liu as saying.
Liu was hand-picked out of three potential female candidates who had undergone the grueling taikonaut training, including a huge body of theoretical knowledge, tough environmental and psychological tests, and a required 100 percent grade in examinations of operational skills.
"The sense of mission and responsibility as well as the passion for aerospace undertakings are the source of courage to overcome difficulties," she said.
Liu promised to keep a detailed record of her feelings and experiences to share with scientists and future astronauts when she comes back.
Officials are hoping that the successful docking of the unmanned Shenzhou-9 spacecraft and its space lab module Tiangong-1 in November will pave the way for a manned space station.
June Teufel Dreyer, political science professor at the University of Miami, said China has devoted a huge amount of resources in recent years to developing its space program.
"I think this shows that China's space program, if it hasn't surpassed that of the West, is definitely catching up with the West," Teufel Dreyer told RFA's Mandarin service via an interpreter.
"This clearly shows just how far they've come, and just how much progress they've made in a lot of areas."
Seton Hall University professor Yang Liyu said the mission is a crucial step for China's ambitions in space.
"Their first aim is to show the rise of China, that China is now a great power," Yang said. "Also that China's rise isn't only an economic rise, but that this is an important step for its rise in terms of space capability and technology."
Teufel Dreyer said China's space capabilities will likely give it a military advantage.
"National pride is one aspect of it, but I think what's more important is that they want to explore the military advantages that space capabilities could bring, as well as the possibilities for colonization," she said.
Yang said China's investment in its space program dates back to its first successful detonation of a nuclear weapon in 1965.
"China's space program started fairly late, [since 1965]. Since then, its progress has been extremely rapid," he said.
"To be a superpower, you have to lead the way in space technology ... and there is a link between space technology and military technology."
"If China can send rockets into space, then of course it can send missiles to any corner of the earth," Yang said.
The 8.5-ton Tiangong-1, which means "Heavenly Palace" in Chinese, shot into space from a launch center in remote Gansu province aboard the Long March 2F rocket on Sept. 29, 2011.
Space analysts say Tiangong is an intermediate program, with more laboratories expected to be launched to test further technology which could be used aboard a space station.
China's final space station is expected to eclipse the Tiangong-1 in terms of size, performance, and achievements.
China has become the third country after the United States and Russia to master space-docking technology, which is crucial to the operation of a space station and manned missions.
Reported by Xi Wang for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.