USA Science and Engineering Festival: The Blog

Women Who Changed the World Through Science & Engineering: Liu Yang — Astronaut

She’s sometimes referred to as China’s Sally Ride. Liu, a fighter pilot, became China’s first female astronaut to travel in space in 2012, helping China accomplish its first-ever manned space docking.

Two years after she was recruited for China’s rigorous astronaut training program, 33-year-old Liu Yang, a fighter pilot in the Chinese Air Force, was selected to serve as a crew member aboard the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft, representing China’s fourth manned launch. Her selection as the country’s first female astronaut quickly became one of the hottest topics on China’s Twitter-like microblogging service (known as Sina Weibo), generating more than 33 million posts.

Liu lives in Beijing, but grew up in the central Chinese province of Henan, a relatively poor but heavily populated agricultural region. She began thinking seriously about a career in aerospace just after high school, when a teacher persuaded her to enroll in an aviation school. Since enlisting in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force in 1997, she has logged 1,680 hours of flight time, earning the rank of major and deputy head of a flight unit. Her courage and coolness under pressure was especially praised by colleagues when she once safely landed her severely crippled fighter jet following a collision with a flock of pigeons. She is also known as an eloquent speaker and an avid reader.

Why She’s Important: Liu Yang became the first Chinese woman to reach space when she and her two male crewmates blasted off last June from deep in China’s Gobi Desert aboard the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft,  representing China’s most ambitious space flight to date. Two days after taking off, the three astronauts — or taikonauts, as they’re known in China — hooked up with the robotic bus-sized space lab module known as Tiangong 1 (orbiting 200 miles above the earth’s surface), achieving China’s first-ever manned space docking. During the 13-day mission, Liu and her fellow astronauts tested the possibility that one day — possibly as early as 2020 — that a larger module based on Tiangong 1 could serve as a permanent space station for China. This is a major step toward China  becoming only the third nation (behind the U.S. and Russia) to set up an independently-maintained base in orbit. Another manned mission to Tiangong 1 is planned for next year, and Liu may be selected for that flight as well. China first launched a man into space in 2003 followed by a two-man mission in 2005, and a three-man trip in 2008 that featured China’s first space walk.

In Her Own Words: Speaking about the rigorous preparation she underwent in China’s astronaut training program, Liu says: “From day one I was told I am no different from the male astronauts… “I believe in persevering. If you persevere, success lies ahead of you.”

For more exciting role models in science and engineering, visit the USA Science & Engineering Festival www.usasciencefestival.org