Liu Yang

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Liu Yang, China's first female astronaut
Xinhua Press/Corbis

At a press conference the astronauts — who appeared behind a glass wall before a small group of hand-picked journalists — said the manual docking was a "huge test", but that they had rehearsed the procedure more than 1,500 times.

"The three of us understand each other tacitly. One glance, one facial expression, one movement, we understand each other thoroughly," said Jing.

The mission to dock with the Tiangong-1 module currently orbiting Earth is the latest step in a plan aimed at giving the country a permanent space station in which a crew can live independently for several months by 2020.

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China sent its first person into space in 2003 and has since conducted several manned missions, the latest in 2008, but has never yet included a woman.

Liu's mission, which has been heavily trailed in the Chinese media, will make China the third country after the Soviet Union and United States to send a woman into space using its own technology, and represent another propaganda coup for the one-party communist state.

China sees its space program as a symbol of its global stature, growing technical expertise, and the Communist Party's success in turning around the fortunes of the once poverty-stricken nation.

Xinhua said the three astronauts' physical state — including their metabolism and moods — would be carefully monitored during the mission to obtain data about the effects of weightlessness on the human body.

All three were in "good and stable condition and preparing for their space journey," it said.

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China was the third country to send humans into space after Russia and America, and it is now also looking into sending astronauts to the moon, although nothing has been set in stone.

A white paper released last December outlining China's ambitious space program said the country "will conduct studies on the preliminary plan for a human lunar landing".

No one has been back to the moon since the last US Apollo landing in December 1972.

But not everyone is convinced — many web users on Friday questioned the decision to plough state funds into the ambitious program when many Chinese cannot afford essentials such as education and medical treatment.

"I can't afford to buy a home, see a doctor and pay for my child's education. Whether we go into space or not really makes very little difference to me," posted one on the news portal Netease.

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