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 tourist.
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.
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 since April.
Ansari said she viewed herself as an ambassador for attracting private investment to space flight.
"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.