Liu Yang, the 33-year-old Chinese Air Force major, described by state media as an avid foodie and dedicated reader, returned to earth Friday, making history as her country’s first woman in space.
With the fitting Air Force callsign “Little Flying Knight,” Liu was all smiles as she was lifted out of her capsule by a ground crew after a 13-day mission that China says will help lay the framework for a permanent space station for the country.
The Shenzhou 9 space ship also made Chinese history earlier in the week when its crew completed a successful manual docking with the Tiangong 1 module, which Chinese officials say is critical to establishing a permanent space station.
The crew touched down gently on Mongolian grasslands around 10 a.m. local time. Mission commander Jing Haipeng, 45, emerged first, followed by 43-year-old Liu Wang and Liu Yang last.
“Tiangong 1, our home in space, was comfortable and pleasant. We’re very proud of our nation,” Liu Yang told state CCTV television.
China may launch another manned mission to the Tiangong 1 this year, which would be very ambitious. The mission that ended Friday was China’s first in over three years. The country is very careful about its manned space program, and it has not suffered any serious problems during its four missions so far. China considers a successful space program as critical to its national pride and status in the world.
Tiangong is a learning module for China as it plans to launch a NASA Skylab-sized station around 2020. Its presence in space makes China the third country to independently put a space station in orbit, after the United States and Russia.