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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

by Ursula Hyzy
Mon Sep 18, 12:21 PM ET

BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan (AFP) - The world's first female space tourist has launched her multi-million dollar adventure, blasting off with two professional astronauts from the Baikonur cosmodrome bound for the International Space Station (ISS).

The Russian-made Soyuz rocket left the Russian base in Kazakhstan Monday at 0408 GMT carrying a Soyuz TMA-9 capsule and its three passengers: Iranian-born US citizen and millionaire tourist Anousheh Ansari, NASA's Michael Lopez-Alegria and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin.

The capsule successfully separated minutes later and entered orbit, with docking at the ISS expected Wednesday.

"The flight is on course," ground control announced as the Soyuz, powered by 270 tonnes of low-temperature oxygen and kerosene fuel, left Earth.

Meanwhile, space officials at NASA and in Russia announced an emergency ventilation shutdown aboard the ISS after an alarm signalled a possible chemical leak.

Astronauts on the station temporarily donned surgical gloves and masks as a precaution.

"The situation has stabilized and it has been reported back down by the crew that there was never any smoke in the cabin. However there was a smell associated with KOH (potassium hydroxide)," American ISS manager Mike Suffredini told reporters at Cape Canaveral.

Ansari, 40, will spend about eight days aboard the ISS before returning to Earth on September 28 with two of the station's current occupants, Russia's Pavel Vinogradov and American Jeffrey Williams.

Lopez-Alegria and engineer Tyurin will then man the ISS along with Germany's Thomas Reiter, who has been in space since early July.

Ansari's family shed tears of joy as her Soyuz rocket shot above the Kazakh steppe.

Then came the champagne.

"Pure joy! I'm just so happy for her -- beyond words," Ansari's sister Atousa Raissyan said.

Ansari's mother, Fakhri Shahidi, watched the craft surge skyward in amazement. "It's hard to believe my daughter is going to space," she said. "I pray with all my heart she's coming back soon".

Ansari, who came to the United States with her parents from Iran when she was 16, made a fortune in the US telecoms market and had dreamt for years of going into orbit. Her X PRIZE Foundation promotes making space more accessible to the wider public.

She is believed to have paid some 25 million dollars (20 million euros) and trained for six months in Russia's Star City facility in order to become the fourth space tourist in history.

"I feel relieved she's up there," her husband Hamid Ansari said after the blast-off. "The anticipation is over. It's the beginning of a new chapter in her life. I can't wait to see her come back."

Iranian media sung Ansari's praises. "The trip into space of Anousheh Ansari is a source of pride for all Iranians," the Hambasteghi newspaper added.

The Kayhan daily also reported on Ansari's trip, quoting her as saying she "wanted to look at Iran from space".

Even before lift-off, Ansari was able to savour the good-luck rituals at Russia's Baikonur site in Kazakhstan, some of them dating back to the 1960s and the glory years of Soviet space exploration.

On their last evening before entering space, Ansari and her two professional crewmates watched the classic Soviet movie "White Sun of the Desert," something every crew has done since the film gained a reputation for bringing luck in the wake of the June 1971 Soyuz 11 accident that killed three cosmomnauts.

Since then, there have been no fatal accidents.

Before departing, the three space travelers also took a moment to autograph the doors of their room -- echoing the last-minute gesture of Yuri Gagarin, who in 1961 took off from Baikonur to become the first man in space.


Anousheh Ansari Space Blog
First blog post from space?


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