BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan — A Russian-built rocket carrying the first woman to pay her own way into orbit lifted off Monday on a flight to the international space station.
Anousheh Ansari, an Iranian-American telecommunications entrepreneur, was accompanied by a U.S.-Russian crew on the Soyuz TMA-9 capsule.
Ansari paid a reported $20 million to become the fourth private spaceflight participant 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, including her husband and mother.
The Soyuz TMA-9 capsule took off at midmorning in Kazakhstan (12:09 a.m. ET), less than a day after the space shuttle Atlantis pulled away from the orbiting station and began its journey Earthward.
Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin and NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria were to join German astronaut Thomas Reiter on the station just over 48 hours after liftoff to begin a six-month tour of duty. 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 since April.
Ansari began her cosmonaut training as a backup to Japanese millionaire Daisuke Enomoto, but joined the primary Soyuz crew last month when the Russians said Enomoto was medically unfit for the space trip. That led some to dub Ansari "the first female space tourist," even though she herself rejects that label.
The first three paying passengers to visit the station — Dennis Tito, Mark Shuttleworth and Greg Olsen — were all men. The only precedent for sending a woman into space with private financial backing is the 1991 flight of British chemist Helen Sharman to Russia's Mir space station. In that case, Sharman was the winner of a contest and did not pay her own fare.
Defending her role
At a news conference Sunday, Ansari, 40, defended the role of “spaceflight participants” and said she viewed herself as an ambassador for attracting private investment to spaceflight.
Slideshow: Month in space: Future frontiers Ansari — whose family provided key support for the $10 million X Prize for private suborbital spaceflight — noted that the Russian Soyuz-TMA capsule had not advanced much beyond the first-generation Russian capsules from decades ago. “In order to make great leaps in space exploration ... private companies and the government need to work together,” she told reporters.
Astronaut Lopez-Alegria pointed out that space flight was not for the lighthearted, and said just a few years ago he was skeptical of private tourists. But he said now it was clear the Russian space program needed such investment and without the Russian space program, the U.S. 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 already.
Ansari said she hoped seeing Earth from space for the first time would change her point of view of the planet.
Ansari also explained her decision earlier to wear a personal mission patch with the colors of the Iranian flag — along with a U.S. flag — on a jumpsuit during training in Moscow. Her blue jumpsuit Sunday featured an American flag on the left shoulder, along with other patches, but the Iranian colors were blanked out from her mission patch.
“I wasn’t trying to make a political statement, just a personal statement,” she said. In Iran, where she lived until she was a teenager, “people will see someone born in Iran flying into space.”
Lots of traffic in space
This week is shaping up as an unusually busy time for space traffic. On Sunday, Atlantis undocked from the station after finishing up a construction job. On Monday, just after the Soyuz launch, the station crew will shift a Progress supply ship to a different docking port to make way for the Soyuz. And on Wednesday, Atlantis will land back on Earth while the Soyuz will dock at the station.
During the six months that Tyurin and Lopez-Alegria are to spend at the station, four spacewalks 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, U.S. officials said.
Another NASA astronaut, Sunita Williams, is to arrive at the station as early as mid-December aboard the shuttle Discovery to take Reiter's place.
This report was supplemented by information from MSNBC.com.
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