Pride in space as Iran cheers first Muslim's journey to the stars

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The Independent Online

From the steppes of Kazakhstan, a wealthy Iranian-American woman was blasted off into space yesterday. In doing so, Anousheh Ansari set at least two records ­ becoming the first female Muslim and the first Iranian in orbit.

The 40-year-old millionaire who left Iran more than two decades ago and who now lives in Dallas, accompanied a Russian cosmonaut and a US astronaut inside the Soyuz TMA-9 on a flight to the International Space Station (ISS). She is due to spend 11 days there before returning with the station's current crew.

As the smoke billowed below the rocket, Mrs Ansari's husband, Hamid, said: "I'm so very happy. It's really hard to describe. She's waited to do this for so long. It's so great to see it finally become a reality."

The couple, who have no children, met at work in a telecommunications company.

After watching her daughter blast off from the Baikonur cosmodrome at around 5am BST, her tearful mother, Fakhri Shahidi, told reporters: "I am happy for her. I know she is very happy and I am praying with all my heart that she is coming back."

Mrs Ansari's sister Atousa Raissyan said: "It's nothing but joy. I've never feared for her. She's going to come back just fine."

In Moscow, the mission control chief Vladimir Solovyov said that live cameras inside the capsule showed Mrs Ansari overwhelmed with emotions as the rocket lifted off. "The launch was successful," he said.

Mrs Ansari ­ who sparked controversy when she was told to remove an Iranian flag patch from her uniform ­ has long been interested in space and the possibility of entering orbit. She paid around $20m (£11m) for the chance to become the fourth paying tourist in space. She has also become the second female space tourist, following Helen Sharman, a chemist from Sheffield, who in 1991 travelled to the Mir space station after winning the trip in a contest.

Before she left Earth, Mrs Ansari said: "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."

Mrs Ansari, who went to the US in 1984, made her fortune after she and her husband sold their telecommunications company for $550m in 2000. She is currently being sued for alleged insider trading in regard to that sale and the case is pending in a Massachusetts court.

Her journey has sparked considerable interest in Iran and triggered an outpouring of national pride. A number of people who have left comments on her internet blog have been from Iran and have spoken of their pride in her endeavour.

She was originally scheduled to join a different Soyuz mission later in the year. Her schedule was brought forward after Russian space officials ruled last month that a Japanese businessman who was due to be part of yesterday's launch, Daisuke Enomoto, could not join the flight for unspecified medical reasons.

Several hours before the Soyuz blasted off, the US space shuttle Atlantis was undocked from the ISS, ready to return to the US tomorrow. It is anticipated that Soyuz will dock with the space station early tomorrow, despite an oxygen generator malfunction on the ISS yesterday which forced the crew to don masks and gloves in the first emergency aboard the eight-year-old orbiting outpost.