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China’s first women astronauts have to be wives and mothers

China’s first two female reserve astronauts, cherry-picked earlier this month from a pool of 15 female pilots, were required to be married and mothers.

As the nation plans to launch its third unmanned mission to the moon in 2012, this is first time women have joined the country's space mission. The Chang'e-3 mission will include an unmanned soft landing on the moon and the release of a moon rover to prospect the surface and interior of the moon"The two women astronauts, both aero-transport pilots from the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force, might take part in manned docking of China's future space lab, Zhang Jianqi, former deputy commander of the country's manned space programme told the official government news agency, Xinhua.

To be selected, the women had to be married and mothers, Xinhua said. "In the selection, we had almost the same requirements on women candidates as those for men,” said Zhang Jianqi, a former deputy commander of the country's manned space program. “But the only difference was that they must be married, as we believe married women would be more physically and psychologically mature," Zhang said. And they had to be mothers because spaceflight could potentially harm the women's fertility, said Xu Xianrong, director of the PLA's Clinical Aerospace Medicine Centre in Beijing and a member of the selection panel. "It's out of the consideration of being responsible for the female pilots. Though there is little evidence on how the space experience will affect the female constitution, we have to be extra cautious, because this is a first for China."

But others suggest that China’s image on the galactic stage was more of a priority. Women’s groups have argued that if disrupting astronauts’ family planning was a prime concern, then would have looked at applications from women who were certain they do not want children. In China, being a married mother is a mark of excellence. "Chinese culture defines women by their maternity," said Cai Yiping, executive director of the women's organisation Isis International. "The perfect woman should be married with a child. Preferably a son,” she told Time magazine. “But I don't know if the space program has put that part in their requirements yet."

China launched its first human space flight in 2003, joining Russia and the United States as the only countries to launch people into orbit, and in 2008 carried out its first spacewalk. Along with a space station, work on which is expected to start next year, other Chinese plans include launching a second lunar probe in October in preparation for its unmanned moon landing by the end of 2012. There are also plans for a manned lunar mission in of 2017  putting China in the forefront of a tightening Asian space race involving India, Japan and South Korea.

By Hayley Jarvis for SOS Children