JIUQUAN, CHINA (AP) - Three Chinese astronauts _ including the first Chinese woman to be sent into space _ have arrived at a launch site for the country's most ambitious space mission.
State-run China Central Television is to broadcast live the liftoff of Shenzhou 9, scheduled for Saturday evening.
Female astronaut Liu Yang, 33, and two male crew members _ veteran astronaut Jing Haipeng and newcomer Liu Wang _ are to dock the spacecraft with a space module in a key step toward building a space station. They will work there for about a week.
The chairman of the National People's Congress standing committee, Wu Bangguo, told the crew in a sending-off ceremony that "The country and people await your victorious return."
Two of the astronauts will live and work inside the module to test its life-support systems while the third will remain in the capsule to deal with any unexpected emergencies.
Success in docking and in living and working aboard the space module would smooth the way for more ambitious future projects, including the building of a permanent space station and missions to the moon.
China is hoping to join the United States and Russia as the only countries to send independently maintained space stations into orbit. It already is in the exclusive three-nation club of nations that have launched manned spacecraft on their own.
The module, called Tiangong 1, is only a prototype, and the plan is to replace it with a larger permanent space station due for completion around 2020.
That station is to weigh about 60 tons, slightly smaller than NASA's Skylab of the 1970s and about one-sixth the size of the 16-nation International Space Station.
Analysts say China's exclusion from the ISS, largely on objections from the United States, was one of the key spurs for it to pursue an independent space program 20 years ago.
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 the country's first space walk.
In November 2011, the unmanned Shenzhou 8 successfully docked twice with Tiangong 1 by remote control.
The selection of the first female astronaut is giving the program an additional publicity boost.
"Arranging for women astronauts to fly is not only a must for the development of human spaceflight, but also the expectation of the public," space program spokeswoman Wu Ping said. "This is a landmark event."
Speaking Friday, Liu Yang said: "We won't let you down. We will work together and successfully complete this mission."