Reuters: A Russian Soyuz spacecraft blasted off on Monday carrying a woman set to notch up three space records: the first female tourist, first female Muslim, and first Iranian in orbit. By Shamil Zhumatov
BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan, Sept 18 (Reuters) – A Russian Soyuz spacecraft blasted off on Monday carrying a woman set to notch up three space records: the first female tourist, first female Muslim, and first Iranian in orbit.
Anousheh Ansari, 40, an Iranian-American telecommunications entrepreneur, joined a Russian cosmonaut and U.S. astronaut in the cramped interior of Soyuz TMA-9 for a flight to the International Space Station (ISS).
The Soviet-designed spacecraft lifted off with a roar of its rocket engine into a clear blue sky at 0409 GMT from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
“The launch was successful,” Mission Control chief Vladimir Solovyov told reporters in Moscow.
At an observation post about a kilometre (mile) from the launch site in the Kazakh steppe, Ansari’s mother said with tears: “I am happy for her. I know she is very happy and I am praying with all my heart that she is coming back.”
Unlike American Michael Lopez-Alegria and Russian Mikhail Tyurin, who are starting a six-month stint in space, Ansari will return to earth in 11 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.
She has been told, however, 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 on Sunday, Ansari said she would still 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 Islamic Republic part of an “axis of evil”.
Ansari has not said how much her ticket cost. The Russian space programme has in the past charged about $20 million.
The practice of selling tourists the chance to fly to space
— Ansari is the fourth — has caused tension between Moscow and NASA in the past but NASA’s ISS Flight Controller, Robert Dempsey, said on Monday he had no great problems with it.
“My personal feeling is I wish it could be me,” he told reporters at Mission Control. “I don’t think the space participant Ansari will impact the mission at all: she will add to it and I think the mission will be a success.”
Ansari 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.
Two of the current ISS crew, Russian Pavel Vinogradov and American Jeff Williams, will return with Ansari on Sept. 29. The third ISS crewmember, German Thomas Reiter, will remain onboard with the fresh U.S.-Russian crew.
Several hours before the Soyuz blast off, the U.S. space Shuttle Atlantis undocked from the ISS. Soyuz will dock with the space station early on Wednesday and Atlantis is scheduled to land at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida a few hours later.
(Additional reporting by Guy Faulconbridge in Moscow and Shavkat Rakhmatullayev in Baikonur)