China's top leadership celebrated the launch of its first female astronaut and two male colleagues into space as the mission gears up for its main objective: an attempt at a manned space docking scheduled for Monday.
The mission is the latest step in China's push to build a pre-eminent space program just as the U.S. has drawn down its own manned space endeavors.
"We can proudly say that the program has become a key indicator of the prosperous development of socialism with Chinese characteristics," said Wu Bangguo, a member of China's all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee, on Sunday, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.
Separately, in remarks carried on the front page of the People's Daily newspaper, the Communist Party's main political mouthpiece, President Hu Jintao threw his weight behind the future for manned Chinese space exploration. "I hope comrades carry forward the spirit of manned space flight," Mr. Hu was quoted as saying.
Liu Yang, a 33-year-old air-force major, became the first Chinese woman to enter space after the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft blasted off from the Jiuquan launch center in the northwestern Gobi desert on Saturday evening.
"I am grateful to the motherland and the people," Ms. Liu said ahead of the mission, according to Xinhua. "I feel honored to fly into space on behalf of hundreds of millions of Chinese females."
The Shenzhou-9 mission, which follows an unmanned space-docking last November, is part of a 30-year plan to assemble a Chinese space station by around 2020, about the same time the International Space Station is expected to cease operations.
China's manned space effort, known as Project 921, comes just as the U.S. in particular has moved to draw down manned space flight and has retired its aging fleet of space shuttles.
Senior U.S. defense officials in recent months have expressed concern about China's manned and unmanned space programs, which are run by the People's Liberation Army. U.S. officials and defense analysts have said a lack of transparency and apparent military applications of space technologies are among the reasons for concern. These include antisatellite capabilities that could severely disrupt U.S. communications in the event of a conflict as well as other technologies that enable it to better track and potentially strike U.S. ships in Asian-Pacific waters.
Ahead of the launch, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin reiterated Friday that China's aspirations in space are for civilian purposes. Officials say that the development of China's space station will be for the world's benefit and that they are open to international cooperation on space missions.
The Shenzhou-9 mission is the latest in a series of high-profile and technology-intensive projects that analysts say are at least partly designed to reinforce the leadership of the Communist Party, which is preparing to undergo a sensitive once-a-decade leadership transition beginning late this year.
In another endeavor, also heavily promoted in state media, Beijing announced its deep-sea submarine Jiaolong dived to a depth of more than 6,000 meters Friday, making it the country's deepest dive to date. As prices rise for many industrial commodities, Beijing and other governments as well as private companies are eager to explore resources beneath the oceans.
China's manned space program has achieved moderate success even as some other high-profile government projects—in particular high-speed rail—have been mired in concerns over corruption and safety. China's achievements in space are to some extent comparable to what the U.S. was achieving in the 1960s, but analysts say China is taking a patient approach to manned space development and preparing for a long-term orbital foothold.
Sending a woman into space is important for conducting physiological tests, according to Joan Johnson-Freese, an expert on China's space program at the U.S. Naval War College. Comparative physiological data regarding how men and women cope in space are important before officials press ahead with longer-duration human missions, she said.