- The Washington Times - Monday, September 18, 2006

BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan — An Iranian-American telecommunications entrepreneur took off yesterday on a Russian rocket bound for the International Space Station, achieving her dream of becoming the world’s first paying female space tourist.

Anousheh Ansari was accompanied by a U.S.-Russian crew on the Soyuz TMA-9 capsule, which entered orbit about 10 minutes after liftoff from the Russian cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Mrs. Ansari reportedly paid $20 million to become the fourth private astronaut to take a trip on a Russian spacecraft and visit the station.

“I’m just so happy to be here,” she said as she entered the rocket yesterday, watched by about a dozen relatives.

As smoke billowed below the rocket, her relatives gasped and her mother clasped her hands in front of her chest.

Mrs. Ansari’s husband, Hamid Ansari, watched the liftoff stoically, but her sister’s face was streaked with tears and her aunt jumped up and down, shrieking and pumping her arms in the air.

The Soyuz TMA-9 capsule took off less than a day after the U.S. Space Shuttle Atlantis pulled away from the orbiting station and began its journey Earthward.

On board with Mrs. Ansari were Russian Mikhail Tyurin and American Michael Lopez-Alegria, who were to join German astronaut Thomas Reiter on the station just over 48 hours after liftoff.

Mrs. Ansari, 40, is scheduled to return to Earth on Sept. 29 along with astronauts Pavel Vinogradov and Jeffrey Williams, who have been on the station since April.

On Sunday, Mrs. Ansari defended the role of “space flight participants” and said she viewed herself as an ambassador for attracting private investment to space flight.

“In order to make great leaps in space exploration … private companies and the government need to work together,” she said at a press conference at the cosmodrome in Baikonur.

Mrs. Ansari gave $10 million in 2002 for the naming rights to a prize awarded to the first successful privately financed manned trip into space.

She follows in the footsteps of Britain’s Helen Sharman, who flew to Russia’s Mir Space Station in 1991 as a tourist as part of a lottery system called Project Juno.

Mrs. Ansari said she expected seeing Earth from space would alter her view of the planet. She also said she was eager to see Iran from space — she hasn’t been back since emigrating to the United States — and hopes to inspire girls in her homeland to study science.

Mrs. Ansari and her family left Iran a few years after the Islamic revolution. Speaking no English when she arrived as a teenager with her family in Virginia, she went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering within a few years.

She married Mr. Ansari in 1991 and later moved to Texas to start a company that made signal-switching software for phone networks.

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