Watch out, America. China is steadily catching up in space.
Between June and August this year, China plans to send three astronauts aboard the Shenzhou-9 for manual docking of the spacecraft with Tiangong 1, a space lab that has been orbiting the Earth since September.
One of the astronauts will not board the space lab, media reports say, but will remain inside the spacecraft in case of emergency.
It will be China’s first crew expedition involving manual docking.
The mission may include a female astronaut, an official in China's manned space program said last weekend.
Niu Hongguang, deputy commander in chief of the space program and a delegate to China's legislature now meeting in Beijing, said the initial roster of astronauts training for the manned mission includes women.
He said the final choices for the three-person crew will be made "on the very last condition."
If all goes as planned, China will become only the third nation, next to the U.S. and Russia, to dock capsules in space.
Since putting a man in space in 2003, China's space program has made a lot of progress.
Docking in space "... demonstrates China's continued commitment to becoming a first-class space power with an independent space capability," said Taylor Fravel, an associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "This is a very exclusive club."
The Chinese space program is largely run by government-owned enterprises or military-affiliated groups. Many of the pilots, scientists and engineers are active or demobilized army officers.
China promises to never use space research for military purposes. Said Qi Faren, the chief designer of the Shenzhou spaceship series: "All China is doing is to pursue a peaceful development of the space industry as planned."
Still, experts say, the U.S. remains concerned. "Over 95% of space technology is dual use, meaning of value to both civil and military communities," said Joan Johnson-Freese of the U.S. Naval War College. "While the U.S. is still far ahead of China technically, China has something critical that the U.S. does not - the political will to push forward."