Liu Jinjie: The first woman to push the launch button at the Wenchang Space Launch Center
  ·  2022-09-15  ·   Source: NO.38 SEPTEMBER 22, 2022

When the applause echoed through the halls at the Wenchang Space Launch Center in China's tropical island province of Hainan, Liu Jinjie didn't react. She was still processing what had just happened.

Beijing Time 2:22 p.m. on July 24.

As the chief flight director counted down and finally said "Ignition!," Liu, a mission control engineer at the center and part of the ascent team, hit the launch button. Wentian, the first lab module of China's Tiangong space station, carried by a Long March-5B Y3 carrier rocket, then took off.

"I kept looking at the takeoff parameters and was completely absorbed by that," Liu told Beijing Review. When everyone started clapping and saying the rocket had lifted off, Liu finally realized they had secured a successful launch.

In China's aerospace industry, the person who presses the launch button is called the "Golden Finger."

Thirty-three-year-old Liu is the first female "Golden Finger" at the Wenchang center. Earning this privilege is the dream of almost everyone working inside the control room. Between her first day at the center and the realization of this dream, seven years had passed.

Switching it up 

Unlike her many colleagues who'd dreamed of becoming a space engineer ever since they were little, Liu majored in math and then made her move into the aerospace industry.

Following her graduation from university in 2013, she took a job at a research institute in Beijing and soon became a technical research analyst there. But a switch flipped in 2014, when Liu first traveled to Wenchang to visit her husband—an aerospace engineer. The visit ignited her interest in the space industry.

And just like that, she decided to lift her life and career to the next level. After returning to Beijing, she handed in her notice and by late 2015 made her way through the gate of the Wenchang center as its newest employee.

Wide beaches and turquoise waters are Hainan's holiday staples. But a couple of times a year, hundreds of thousands of people flock to the island for the sole purpose of witnessing a rocket blast off into space from the province's launch center. China's fourth and youngest spacecraft launch site has even boosted local tourism since it opened in 2016.

Liu's first launch mission also happened to be the site's first liftoff, namely the inaugural Long March-7 Y1 rocket flight. "I still remember that moment. It was majestic, moving me to tears," she recalled.

Her first job at the center was in data processing, "because I'd majored in mathematics and data processing is a relatively basic, entry-level position in the control room," she explained.

So far, Liu has witnessed the first flight of two types of rockets—the Long March-7 and the Long March-5—and has occupied a dozen positions, from data processing to managing the mission control console. "This is the only way to really learn the system, what everyone is doing, and how the whole process works," she said.

A Long March-5B Y3 carrier rocket, carrying the Wentian lab module, blasts off from the Wenchang Space Launch Center (XINHUA)

In control 

If the rocket is a human body, then the console is the brain. "All instructions are sent from the devices I'm in charge of," Liu explained.

When an emergency occurs, an experienced console operator must have a very fast reaction time, according to her. "You need to learn how to think more along the lines of 'what I should do', 'what parameters I should look at', and 'what calls I should make'," she said.

Throughout the testing process leading up to every launch, Liu continuously develops "what if" scenarios, carefully analyzing each one. "I'd rather not come across any issues without having contemplated them before liftoff," she said. "This is the general philosophy of those working here."

Liu Jinjie manages the mission control console during the launch of Wentian from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan Province on July 24 (COURTESY PHOTO)


Before Liu assumed the post in July, the "Golden Fingers" at the Wenchang center had all been men. "Maybe it was a new thing for a woman to do because several positions require high levels of physical fitness. For example, after giving birth, it wasn't easy to climb up the 16 flights of stairs to get to the launch pad for inspection," Liu added.

Both the testing and launching processes simply involve more men than women. So Liu wanted to show people that women, too, have what it takes to excel at the job.

"As you move through the system, you may encounter many setbacks, and a lot of doubt," she said. "Persistence requires a strong and healthy mindset."

As of this August, the Wenchang center had carried out 18 launch missions, with Liu participating in 17 of them. The only launch she missed was on April 20, 2017, when the rocket carrying the Tianzhou-1 cargo spacecraft took off, because that day, she welcomed her son into the world.

"My son used to say I hardly spent any time with him," Liu laughed. But during the Wentian lab module liftoff, her son saw Liu push that coveted launch button live, on TV. "He was very proud."

Over the years, more and more women have contributed to the aerospace field, from Wang Yaping, the first female Chinese astronaut to conduct extravehicular activities, to Liu and her female coworkers, who are all lighting up the industry with the power of women.

"I think that a female engineer active in the space industry is like a coconut palm," she said. "Not broken by typhoons, not damaged by heavy rains, and not afraid of the sunburn. And with the ability to rise again after falling down, face the sea, look up at the stars, and maintain our own aspirations. We should all be like that."

The Shenzhou-14 crew, the ninth crewed Chinese spaceflight, which launched on June 5, currently awaits the arrival of the Mengtian lab module. On September 3, a Long March-5B Y4 rocket, set to carry the module into space, was transported to the Wenchang center. Liu will once again be "manning" the deck during the upcoming launch in October. But the "Golden Finger" station is not her final destination. Like the rockets she sends off, Liu, too, intends to travel far and wide.

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon 

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