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Soyuz blasts off with first woman space tourist

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 US 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 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 US-Russian crew.

Ansari, a US citizen based in Dallas, Texas, who left Iran in 1984, 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 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.

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.

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