Women fight to become China's next oceanauts

SHANDONG, China - Three women will vie for two spots on China's team of oceanauts that will serve in the deep-diving submersible Jiaolong, the China National Deep Sea Center announced on Thursday.

The women are among 10 candidates for six positions on the submersible. The final team will be unveiled in mid-November.

A year after sending the first Chinese woman into space, the nation is looking to send its first women into the depths of the ocean. China currently has two trained oceanauts.

Liu Baohua, leader of the oceanaut selection team, said lifting the men-only restriction will help develop the nation's undersea exploration efforts.

"Jiaolong is going to undertake more deep-sea diving programs every year. The new oceanauts will play an important role in guaranteeing the future operation of Jiaolong," Liu said.

Liu also added that women are "more cautious than men, which may help them drive and operate the submersible more accurately" and that women are also better in communicating with others.

The 10 candidates, who are all in their 20s, will undergo medical and mental tests for nearly two weeks. The final six will then undergo 119 examinations that includes testing their knowledge of mechanical engineering and the ocean, according to the centre.

Six days ago, more than 130 candidates were chosen after the first round of testing. The candidates underwent a number of physical tests, including an 800-meter run for women and a 1,000-meter run for men, as well as psychological tests. There were four more rounds of rigorous examinations that whittled down the number of candidates to 10. The names of the final 10 have not been released.

Grueling job

Liu said an oceanaut must face many extreme situations, such as withstanding a great deal of mental pressure.

"Being able to tackle pressure is crucial for oceanauts because they must deal with a lot of extreme situations during the diving programs," Liu said.

He said that technical abilities can improve with practice, but said most oceanauts are born with the ability to deal with adversity and pressure.

Fu Wentao, one of only two trained oceanauts in China, said staying in the small confines of the Jiaolong for more than 10 hours at a time is a great challenge. He said emergencies in the ocean can drive most people to the edge of a breakdown.

Oceanauts must also stand dramatic temperature shifts in the submersible's hull that ranges from 38 to 14 C on a deep dive.

Zhao Shengya, who is a student at Dalian Maritime University and made it through the first four rounds of the centre's testing, said she is confident that she can perform as well as the men. She has not been told if she is among the final 10 candidates.

"Once selected as oceanauts, they will receive about two years of training before driving Jiaolong independently," Liu said.

After a record dive of 7,062 meters in June last year in the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean, the centre is increasing the number of dives for Jiaolong this year.

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