Iranian-born space tourist ready for blast-off
Updated: 2006-09-18 10:48

BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan - A Russian Soyuz spacecraft was set to blast off on Monday carrying a woman who will accomplish a trio of space firsts: the first female tourist, first female Muslim, and first Iranian in orbit.

Anousheh Ansari, 40, an Iranian-American telecoms entrepreneur, joins a Russian cosmonaut and U.S. astronaut in the cramped interior of Soyuz TMA-9 for a flight to the International Space Station (ISS).

Unlike American Michael Lopez-Alegria and Russian Mikhail Tyurin, who are starting a six-month stint in space, Ansari will return to Earth in 10 days with the outgoing U.S.-Russian crew.

Ansari, a U.S. citizen based in Dallas, Texas who left Iran in 1984, has said she wants to be an example to her compatriots.

"I think my flight has become a sort of ray of hope for young Iranians living in Iran, helping them to look forward to something positive, because everything they've been hearing is all so very depressing and talks of war and talks of bloodshed," Ansari told Reuters last week ahead of the launch.

She has, however, been told to remove an Iranian flag from her spacesuit and, at the insistence of the Russian and U.S. governments, promise that there will be no political messages during her trip.

Looking relaxed and smiling at a pre-launch news conference at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Sunday, Ansari said she would, however, pack another Iranian flag for her trip.

The United States and Iran have not had formal diplomatic relations since students took 52 Americans hostage at the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979. U.S. President George W. Bush has called the country part of an "axis of evil".

Ansari has not said how much she paid for the ticket but previous space tourists have paid the Russian space programme about $20 million.

She had originally been scheduled to join a later Soyuz mission but took the place of Japanese businessman Daisuke Enomoto when Russian space officials said last month he was not able to fly for unspecified medical reasons.

Soyuz is due to blast off at 0409 GMT. To make room for it, the U.S. space Shuttle Atlantis is undocking from the ISS.

The Soyuz craft will dock with the space station early on Wednesday, a few hours before Atlantis is scheduled to land at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.