The Long March 2F rocket carrying the manned spacecraft Shenzhou IX blasts off from the launch pad at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Northwest China’s Gansu Province on June 16, 2012.

Shenzhou IX , atop an upgraded Long March 2F carrier rocket, blast off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwestern China at 6:37 pm Saturday.

A see-off ceremony was held at the center hours before the launch. Wu Bangguo, the country’s top legislator, attended the ceremony and extended wishes to the three astronauts.

“The country and the people are looking forward to your successful return,” he said.

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The first Chinese woman in space Liu Yang, 33, is joined by commanding officer Jing Haipeng and Liu Wang, who has been selected as an astronaut trainee since January 1998.

Main tasks of the Shenzhou IX mission include the manual docking procedure conducted between the Shenzhou IX and the orbiting space lab module Tiangong-1.

China succeeded in the automated rendezvous and docking between unmanned Shenzhou-8 spacecraft and Tiangong-1 last year.

A successful manual docking will demonstrate a grasp of essential space rendezvous and docking know-how, a big step in the country’s manned space program to build a space station around 2020.

Liu, a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) major, was a PLA Air Force pilot with 1,680 hours of flying experience and deputy head of a military flight unit before being recruited as an astronaut candidate in May 2010.

After two years of training, which shored up her astronautic skills and adaptability to space environment, Liu excelled in testing and was selected in March this year as a candidate for the Shenzhou IX manned space mission.

“Female astronauts generally have better durability, psychological stability and ability to deal with loneliness,” Wu Ping, spokeswoman for China’s manned space program, said.

More than 50 female astronauts from seven countries have gone into space to date. The longest space flight by female astronauts lasted 188 days.