AS A young girl in Iran, Anousheh Ansari would stare in wonder at the stars and dream of joining them in the blackness of space.
Yesterday, a week after her 40th birthday, she made her dream come true. At an estimated cost of $20 million (£11 million), Mrs Ansari became the first woman space tourist after blasting off in a Russian Soyuz rocket from Star City in Kazakhstan.
As the first Iranian-born astronaut was circling Earth last night, her remarkable journey from Tehran to the International Space Station was being hailed also as evidence of the continued power of another dream: the American one.
Mrs Ansari was 16 when her family emigrated in 1984 as the Islamic Revolution in Iran was at its peak and girls faced a strictly limited future. Her parents said that they wanted her to be able to pursue her passion for science.
She arrived speaking only French and Farsi, became an American citizen and quickly immersed herself in the study of electronics, receiving degrees in electrical engineering and computer science at George Mason University in Virginia and George Washington University in Washington.
Mrs Ansari joined a telecommunications company, where she met her husband, Hamid. In 1993 she persuaded him and his brother to pool their savings and set up Telecom Technologies, a supplier of communication networks, just as the industry in America was deregulating.
The start-up grew rapidly to employ 250 people and turned the Ansaris into telecom tycoons when the business was sold for hundreds of millions of dollars in 2000.
Mrs Ansari turned her eyes again to the stars. She gave $10 million in 2002 to the X Prize Foundation, set up to encourage advances in human spaceflight, as a prize for the first private venture to launch a reusable spacecraft into space twice in two weeks.
The Ansari X Prize was claimed in 2004 by Mojave Aerospace Ventures.
When the impoverished Russian space programme at the Baikonur centre in Star City began accepting paying passengers on missions, it was only a matter of time before Mrs Ansari signed up.
Space Adventures, the American firm that markets the trips, does not disclose the price but is understood to charge $20 million a ticket, most of which goes to the Russians.
Six months of intensive training has prepared Mrs Ansari for the 11-day spaceflight with two professional astronauts, Michael López-Alegría, from Nasa, and the Russian Mikhail Tyurin. They are due to dock tomorrow at the space station, where Mrs Ansari will spend eight days before returning to Earth with the departing crew, Pavel Vinogradov, of Russia, and the American , Jeffrey Williams, on September 29.
Mrs Ansari, who recently described space as being “in my soul and in my heart”, said before take-off that she was looking forward to seeing Iran again from high above Earth. She has not been back since she left.
She hopes that a new generation of girls with similarly big dreams will be staring back at her up among the stars. She said: “I hope to inspire everyone — especially young people, women and young girls all over the world, and in Middle Eastern countries that do not provide women with the same opportunities as men — to not give up their dreams and to pursue them.
“It may seem impossible to them at times. But I believe they can realise their dream if they keep it in their hearts, nurture it and look for opportunities and make those opportunities happen.”
Mrs Ansari’s family were at Baikonur to witness the dream and they celebrated with champagne and tears as the rocket took off in a plume of flame and smoke.
Her mother, Fakhri Shahidi, said: “It’s hard to believe my daughter is going to space. I pray with all my heart she’s coming back soon.”
Russia is the only country to offer space tourism for those able to afford the hefty fee, and Mrs Ansari is its fourth paying customer. She had been scheduled to go later but got her seat on this mission when Russian officials withdrew Daisuke Enomoto, a Japanese businessman, for unspecified medical reasons.
Mrs Ansari has said that she detests the term “space tourist”, preferring to see herself as an ambassador for a new wave of private explorers at Earth’s final frontier.
She told an interviewer: “Tourists are people who just buy a ticket and then they go. They don’t train for six months and try to learn every system.” http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,3-2364282,00.html
Anousheh Ansari prepares for her $20 million flight. The former telecom tycoon, who left Iran when she was 16, says that space is “in my soul and in my heart”. PHOTOGRAPH: SHAMIL ZHUMATOV/REUTERS