Baikonur, Kazakhstan - An Iranian-American telecommunications entrepreneur
took off Monday on a Russian rocket bound for the international space station,
achieving her dream of becoming the the world's first paying female space
Anousheh Ansari was accompanied by a US-Russian crew on the Soyuz TMA-9
capsule, which entered orbit about 10 minutes after liftoff from the Russian
cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
Ansari reportedly paid US$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 ebulliently as she entered the
rocket Monday, 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.
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.
At Russian Mission Control, NASA flight director Robert Dempsey said Ansari's
presence was a plus to the mission. As for the propriety of sending tourists
into space, he said: "My personal feeling is I wish it could be me."
The Soyuz TMA-9 capsule took off less than a day after the US space shuttle
Atlantis pulled away from the orbiting station and began its journey Earthward.
On board with Ansari were Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin and US astronaut
Michael Lopez-Alegria, who were to join German astronaut Thomas Reiter on the
station just over 48 hours after liftoff.
Ansari, 40, was due to return to Earth on Sept. 29, along with cosmonaut
Pavel Vinogradov and astronaut Jeffrey Williams, who have been on the station
On Sunday, Ansari defended the role of "space flight participants" and said
she viewed herself as an ambassador for attracting private investment to space
"In order to make great leaps in space exploration ... private companies and
the government need to work together," she said at a news conference at the
cosmodrome in Baikonur.
Ansari gave US$10 million in 2002 for the naming rights to a prize awarded to
the first successful privately financed manned trip into space.
Ansari 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.
Astronaut Lopez-Alegria said just a few years ago he was skeptical of private
tourists. But he said now it was clear that the Russian space program needed
such investment ¡ª and that without the Russian space program, the US space
program would suffer.
"If that's the correct solution... then not only is it good from the
standpoint of supporting the Russian space program, but it's good for us as
well," he said. Ansari's presence in space "is a great dream and a great hope
not just for our country but for countries all around the world."
Cosmonaut Tyurin called Ansari "very professional" and said he felt like they
had worked together for a decade.
Ansari said she expected seeing Earth from space would alter her view of the
"You'll see how small and how fragile the Earth is compared to the rest of
the universe," she said. "It will give us a better sense of responsibility."
Earlier she 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.
Ansari and her family left Iran a few years after the Islamic revolution, in
part because the opportunities for a young girl to study science were becoming
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 and her husband married in 1991 and later moved to Texas to start a
company that made signal-switching software for phone networks.
In 2000, at the height of the telecommunications boom, they sold their
suburban Dallas company to Massachusetts-based Sonus Networks Inc. for US$550
million in Sonus stock.
The value of those shares slid from US$40 to under US$5 as the telecom
industry collapsed but her husband said they had "enough opportunity to sell
enough shares to earn financial independence."
The timing of some stock sales led to shareholder suits against Sonus and
nine people, including Anousheh Ansari. The plaintiffs accused her of illegal
insider trading in the sale of US$26.3 million in Sonus stock.
A spokeswoman for the couple said the Securities and Exchange Commission
never accused Mrs. Ansari of insider trading.
Tyurin and Lopez-Alegria are to join Reiter as the construction at the space
station is picking up pace. On the agenda for the four days following the
departure of the Atlantis: The station's current crew will shift a Progress
supply ship to a different docking port to make way for the Soyuz; Atlantis will
land back on Earth; and the Soyuz will dock at the station.
During the six-month tenure of Tyurin and Lopez-Alegria, four space walks are
planned, with as many as three to be conducted in January to help set up the
station's permanent cooling system. Another will take place earlier to retrieve
and install experiments on the station's exterior.