It was the Russians who sent the first woman - Valentina Tereshkova - into space in 1963. In 1978 the first woman joined NASA's Space Shuttle astronaut class and in 1983, Sally Ride was the first American woman in space. The only Brit who has flown in space is also female: Helen Sharman flew on the Russian Soyuz TM-12 rocket on 18 May 1991 to join the MIR orbital space station for two weeks.

The first female African-American in space was Mae Jamison in 1992; Dr Chiaki Mukai was the first Japanese woman in 1994 and Claudie Haigneré, became the first French female astronaut in 1996.

Anousheh Ansari, an electronics engineer and telecommunications entrepreneur made space history on 18 September 2006, when she lifted off on the Russian Soyuz as a private space explorer with International Space Station (ISS) Expedition 14. She tells us about her epic journey.

What is it about space that inspired you to carry out your adventure?

Ever since I was young, I have had a passion for space and space exploration. The sheer mystery of space, what's out there, what's it like and how I could get there, fascinated me. Once Dennis Tito (first private space explorer) started talking about buying a trip to space on the Russian Soyuz space craft in the Nineties I decided to work really hard at my business and if all else failed, I could buy a ticket!

Did you have to undergo full astronaut training for your trip?

I did six-months' preparation for the trip at Star City in Russia. It is the same training received by astronauts but they undergo around two years' more in-depth training to a repair systems level. However, I had to take an active role as a crew member, and the term "space tourist" kind of undermines what you have to do on the mission.

Can you describe your feelings as you boarded the spacecraft and prepared for lift-off?

We spent two-and-a-half hours in the capsule preparing launch procedures. After that they put some music on and we had a chance to relax. I had watched ISS Expedition 13 launch so I was prepared for a lot of noise, but from inside the capsule the launch felt surprisingly smooth. My American fellow crew member who had also flown the Shuttle remarked that the Soyuz was very smooth in comparison.

There were three crew members: Commander Michael Lopez-Alegria, flight engineer Mikhail Tyurin and myself. Our mission was to relieve Expedition 13 Commander Pavel Vinogradov and NASA science officer Jeff Williams after their six-month mission on the ISS. I spent eight days on the ISS before returning to earth with Vinogradov and Williams.

How would you rate the experience?

Being in space was absolutely amazing, especially experiencing weightlessness. Seeing the Earth from the space station changed my perception of the planet and made me feel much more protective of this precious gift that we have to look after. I didn't want to go back and even considered hiding on board the ISS, although I did miss my husband and family very much by then!

Why is space exploration important?

We can investigate many problems on earth in microgravity that will help us to ensure the longevity of the human race, and every science can be applied to space, from biology to new research in engines, materials and fuels.

What advice would you give to a young person considering a career in the space industry

There is so much going on in the industry right now. Government agencies are still doing a lot of work while private space exploration is really growing. Companies like Space Adventures and Virgin Galactic are helping to find new ways for even more private citizens to experience space, and there will be many exciting projects to work on.