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Women push back space frontiers with first "tourist" By Nick Allen

Deutsche Presse Agentur
Published: Wednesday September 13, 2006

Moscow- Lipstick to hand, womankind will make another giant cosmic leap Monday as pioneering female "space tourist" Anousheh Ansari launches on a ten-day mission to the International Space Station (ISS). Blasting off from Baikonur in Kazakhstan on a Russian Soyuz rocket, the Iranian-born US entrepreneur is the fourth commercial visitor to the outpost - paying around 20 million US dollars - and the 48th woman to go into space.

Having emigrated to the United States at the age of 16, Ansari, 40, says she hopes her life and space voyage will inspire young people worldwide, "especially women and girls."

"The road to Baikonur was not an easy one and had many ups and downs and obstacles. But what is important is that I stuck to my dream and did not lose my way," she wrote in a recent blog posted on the Internet.

Russian space officials reject the tourist label that has been attached to her, noting that Ansari, who made her fortune in digital technology, will carry out a science programme during her eight-day stay on the station.

Nor does her gender affect operations on the ISS, which was previously visited by numerous women astronauts, including Peggy Whitson who flew for six months in 2002 with two Russian cosmonauts.

Perhaps indeed, as British astronaut Helen Sharman said after her 1991 flight on the Soviet space station Mir, "There is very little difference between men and women in space."

But while women are routinely included in US shuttle crews, their presence is less customary for colleagues from the Russian space programme, which has sent only three women into orbit. Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space in 1963, two years after Yury Gagarin made the first human space flight.

Still, cosmonauts have said that in space they care more for their appearance with women around them. And although ISS housekeeping chores are evenly shared, tasks like cutting each other's hair in conditions of weightlessness can be potentially traumatic.

Called upon to give Whitson a trim in 2002, cosmonaut Valery Korzun "was very nervous the whole time and said it was probably bad for his heart to cut a woman's hair," she recalled.

No one expects the elegant Ms. Ansari to completely forsake her feminine side on her trip.

The businesswoman reportedly handpicked and bought material in her favourite shade of blue for the overalls that she will wear on the ISS.

While she may not take piles of cosmetics, her personal effects include "moisturizing cream, lipstick and lotions," said Galina Shumilina from the bio-medical institute that supports the Russian programme.

Gender barriers may be crumbling on near-earth flights, but planned long-distance missions - or at least those with Russian involvement - look set to remain a male domain for many years to come.

An earlier experiment in prolonged confinement to simulate a Mars mission lasting around two years prompted scientists in Moscow to conclude that a female presence "increases the probability of conflicts."

Ansari's companions for the upcoming flight appear to have no such worries.

Asked how he felt when she was bumped onto the flight roster last month when Japanese businessman Daisuke Enomoto failed a medical, cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin said: "We like something new, unexpected happening. There is no doubt Anousheh will be able to fit into our team."

Bearing the flags of both the United States and Iran on her flight suit, Ansari will fly to the station with Tyurin and NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria.

She is due to return in a Soyuz descent capsule on September 28 with outgoing crew members Pavel Vinogradov and Jeffrey Williams.

Her trip was arranged through the US company Space Adventures which previously sent three private explorers to the ISS.

In 2001, American Dennis Tito fulfilled his dream of space travel, followed by South African Mark Shuttleworth in 2002 and American Gregory Olsen in 2005.

An active proponent of world-changing technologies, Ansari dreamed of space exploration since childhood. Her family provided sponsorship for the Ansari X Prize, a ten-million-dollar cash award for the first non-governmental organization to launch a reusable manned spacecraft into space twice within two weeks. This feat was accomplished by aerospace designer Burt Rutan in 2004.

Follow her mission in the Internet at http://spaceblog.xprize.org

© 2006 DPA - Deutsche Presse-Agenteur