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U.S.: Iranian-American To Be First Female Civilian In Space

Anousheh Ansari in training outside of Moscow in August (epa) WASHINGTON, September 15, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- When she was a girl, Anousheh Ansari used to lie on her back outside and gaze at the night sky. She dreamed of some day flying into space.

Twenty-five years later, that day is almost here.

On September 18, Ansari and two astronauts are scheduled to blast off in a Russian Soyuz TMA-9 spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Their space flight is scheduled to begin at 8:09 a.m. Moscow time.

The two astronauts at the controls -- Russian flight engineer Russian Mikhail Tyurin and U.S. commander Michael Lopez-Alegria -- will replace a crew that is finishing a tour of duty at the International Space Station.

The First Female Private Citizen In Space

Ansari is the first female private citizen -- and only the fourth private citizen overall -- to take a space flight. Two U.S. businessmen and a South African entrepreneur have gone before her.

Public interest in her flight is high as she prepares to go into orbit.

On her space suit, she wears the flags of both the United States and Iran -- although she wears the version of the Iranian flag used before the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

"Basically, at the end of the day they all say: 'Just make sure that you enjoy every moment of it and take in every breath and just remember the experience and try to cherish every moment of the experience', and so I think a lot of the experience depends on the individual and will differ; and I am looking forward to capturing my feelings and my experience when I am flying and when I get to the space station, and then I will share it with everyone upon my return," Ansari told a press conference at the Zvyozdnyi gorodok cosmonaut training center, near Moscow, on August 30.

This flight almost didn't happen. Ansari only learned that she would be going on the mission on August 20. A Japanese businessman who had trained for months was set to go on next week's flight, but a medical condition forced him to withdraw.

The price of a ticket into space is a closely guarded secret, but the U.S. company that arranges such trips -- Space Adventures -- reportedly charges $20 million, most of which reportedly goes to the Russian space program.

Not Just Tourism

Mission commander Michael Lopez-Alegria (left) working with Ansari at the Baikonour Cosmodrome on September 14 (courtesy photo)

For the Soyuz mission, has been learning Russian. She already speaks Farsi, French, and English. On her space suit, she wears the flags of both the United States and Iran -- although she wears the version of the Iranian flag used before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. She says that is to honor the two countries that have contributed to her life.

Officials at the Cosmonaut Training Center who are preparing Ansari for the mission have reported that her education and experience make her much more than a tourist. They said her performance in training has been "excellent."

Ansari herself dismisses the idea that she is a tourist -- the label the media has given her. She has serious research planned for her 10 days in space. At the International Space Station, she will carry out one Russian and two European Space Agency studies involving medicine and microbiology.

When the Soyuz spacecraft breaks through the Earth's atmosphere, it will be Ansari's biggest journey since she immigrated to the United States from Iran with her sister and parents when she was 16.

In the United States, she learned English, graduated from a university, and earned an advanced degree in electrical engineering. After graduation, she met her future husband, Hamid, and convinced him to help her found Telecom Technologies, Inc. The sale of that company -- for hundreds of millions of dollars -- made the Ansaris wealthy.

Now the couple runs Prodea Systems, a digital-technology and investment firm in Texas.

A Childhood Passion

Ansari's sister, Atousa Raissyan, is also an engineer and works at Prodea Systems. Before leaving for Kazakhstan to watch the launch, Raissyan told RFE/RL that space has always been a passion of her sister's.

"She was the one that always used to tell me about the stars and what the constellations are and all that," Raissyan said. "For me, it's more of a thrill, and for her it's just a passion, and something she's been wanting to do since she was a child."

She said they have been in contact almost every day during Ansari's training. Although space travel is safer than it used to be, it still carries considerable risks. Raissyan said despite this, her sister is calm, but excited about the flight.

"She's not nervous actually," Raissyan said. "She's very excited. I think she's just, right now, very excited to get up there and go, as I am. Everybody asks me if I'm nervous, and you know, I'm not nervous. I'm just anxious right now to get there and see her go and have her come back safely."

Girls, Women Everywhere Watching

At a recent press conference in Zvyozdnyi gorodok, Russia, Ansari said she hoped that women and girls in remote parts of the world would hear about her space flight. She said in many countries, women are not encouraged to pursue careers in science and technology. However, they should decide what they want to do and follow their dream.

Raissyan said Ansari has felt this way for years.

The crew of the mission that is scheduled for launch on September 18 posing in Kazakhstan on September 14 (courtesy photo)

"I think she wants to encourage [women and girls] and make them believe that they can accomplish whatever they want, because unfortunately, in a lot of different parts of the world, women are considered second-class citizens and they don't have as much opportunity as men do," Raissyan said. "So I think she's trying to tell them there are different possibilities for them, and they can reach their goals and reach their dreams."

Raissyan also said that there is considerable interest in Ansari's flight into space in Iran.

"She is actually getting a lot of positive comments from [people in Iran] and a lot of encouragement, and a lot of well wishes, and they're all very proud of her," Raissyan said.

Ansari once told a reporter that she lives by the words of Mahatma Ghandi: You must be the change you want to see in the world.

On September 12 she celebrated her 40th birthday at Baikanour, and Russian Federal Space Agency head Anatoly Perminov phoned to congratulate her.

A successful launch on September 18 will no doubt be the best birthday present she could receive.

RFE/RL Iran Report

RFE/RL Iran Report

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