A Russian-built rocket carrying a new US-Russian crew and the world’s first female space tourist lifted off today and streaked into the cloudless sky over Kazakhstan, heading for the international space station.
The Soyuz TMA-9 capsule headed into space less than a day after the US space shuttle Atlantis pulled away from the orbiting station and began its journey back to Earth. It entered orbit about 10 minutes after liftoff, according to Russian space officials monitoring the launch at Mission Control in Korolyov, outside Moscow.
Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin and US astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria were to join German astronaut Thomas Reiter on the station just over 48 hours after blasting off from Baikonur. Travelling with the new crew was Anousheh Ansari, an Iranian-American telecommunications entrepreneur who has paid a reported £10.6million 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 today, watched by about a dozen relatives, including her husband and mother, as well as the other crew members’ families, space officials and reporters.
Ms Ansari, 40, was due to return to Earth on September 29, along with cosmonaut Pavel Vinogradov and astronaut Jeffrey Williams, who have been on the station since April.
Speaking at a final news conference Sunday at the Russian cosmodrome in Baikonur, Ms Ansari, 40, defended the role of ”space flight participants” and said she viewed herself as an ambassador for attracting private investment to space flight.
She said that the Soyuz-TMA capsule carrying her, Tyurin and Lopez-Alegria to the station was not unlike the first-generation Russian space 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 light-hearted, and said that just a few years ago he was sceptical of private tourists. But he said now it was clear that the Russian space programme needed such investment – and that without the Russian space programme, the US space programme would suffer.
“If that’s the correct solution... then not only is it good from the standpoint of supporting the Russian space programme, 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.