China will select future astronauts from the ranks of scientists rather than military pilots, a top-level engineer for the country's manned space program said in Beijing on Thursday.
"China's manned space project will start setting up space laboratories and stations after 2012, and by that time scientists will be needed for a large number of experiments in space," said Zhang Jianqi, deputy chief commander of China's manned space project.
Scientists from the two Special Administrative Regions (SAR), Hong Kong and Macao, can compete to be astronauts, according to Zhang.
So far, most Chinese astronauts have been former People's Liberation Army pilots.
China plans to launch the Shenzhou-8, Shenzhou-9 and Shenzhou-10 missions before 2012. The three missions are expected to solve the problem of spacecraft rendezvous and docking and prepare for the establishment of space labs, according to Zhang.
Zhang also said scientists and engineers, including those from Hong Kong and Macao, could apply for carrying out experiments on Shenzhou-8 as the unmanned spacecraft still had the space for more experiments.
A delegation to Hong Kong and Macao, led by Zhang, is scheduled to start a six-day visit on Friday.
The delegation includes three Shenzhou-7 astronauts -- Zhai Zhigang, Liu Boming and Jing Haipeng -- and Zhou Jianping, chief designer of the manned space project. The delegation is scheduled to meet local people to share the mainland's space accomplishment.
An exhibit on the Shenzhou-7 voyage will also be held in Hong Kong and Macao.
Delegations from the Shenzhou-5 and Shenzhou-6 missions, which took place in 2003 and 2005, have also been invited by the SAR governments to pay visits.