Chinese astronaut Liu Yang made history on Saturday, when she became the country's first woman to enter space. Liu, 33, joined crew members Jing Haipeng and Liu Wang aboard the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft, which successfully launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert. Powered by a Long March 2F carrier rocket, the Shenzhou-9 is slated to rendezvous with the Tiangong-1 space lab module as part of China's first manned docking mission.
Liu and her colleagues are expected to spend up to 20 days in space and dock with the Tiangong-1. If successful, the manned docking would mark the latest milestone for China's rapidly growing space program, and an important step toward building its first permanent space station — something China hopes to achieve by the end of the decade. The mission also marks the nation's first manned spaceflight since 2008, and will serve as a test run for future dockings with its forthcoming space station.
The crew will briefly live and conduct experiments aboard the Tiangong-1, though one member will remain with the Shenzhou-9 as a precautionary measure. Liu, a former air force pilot, will be in charge of "medical experiments," according to the New York Times. Little is known about her personal life, though Chinese media outlets report that she hails from Henan Province, and currently lives in Beijing with her husband.
The Chinese space program has seen remarkable growth over the past decade, thanks in large part to a surge in federal investment. China sent its first astronaut into space in 2003, and in November, became the third nation to successfully dock in space. In December, the country issued a roadmap for the next five years, affirming its goals to reach the moon and establish its space station by 2020.
Update: The Shenzhou-9 spacecraft successfully docked with China's Tiangong-1 space laboratory on Monday.