October 18, 2006

Female Space Tourist Hopes for Return

By STEVE GUTTERMAN, Associated Press Writer

MOSCOW - Now that she's learned to walk in gravity again, American space tourist Anousheh Ansari has some things to take care of on Earth: developing a new company, promoting science and space travel, and spending time with her family.

But Ansari doesn't want to stay on this planet for too long.

"I just love that feeling of freedom that you get from being in space, and I certainly got addicted to it, so I'm hoping to be able to repeat that experience again some time soon," the Iranian-born entrepreneur told The Associated Press in an interview Wednesday.

Ansari, 40, spoke by phone after a ceremony at the facility outside Moscow where she spent months training for her 11-day voyage as the first paying female space tourist. The electrical engineer paid a reported $20 million for a trip last month to the international space station.

"I loved being in space, and if I had a choice I would have probably stayed longer," she said.

Physically, the hardest part about being back was the gravity that pulls you down, she said. "When you come back you feel really heavy, and my husband kept telling me, 'You walk funny.'"

Psychologically, the pull for Ansari is in the opposite direction: back to space.

"The only thing that keeps bringing me back to Earth is my family," said Ansari, who lifted off from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan aboard a Russian Soyuz craft. "If I could have taken them up there with me, I probably would have just stayed forever."

Ansari's trip was a personal milestone for a woman who remembers gazing at the stars as child in        Iran and wondering if there was somebody like her out there somewhere.

"My favorite view out the window was the night sky, because I always loved watching the stars, and on the station you basically have the perfect view of the stars," she said.

But it was also part of a push to promote commercial space travel, an effort she will continue to pursue.

She helped finance a $10 million prize "” named the Ansari X Prize "” that was awarded in 2004 to the makers of the first privately funded, manned spacecraft to blast into suborbital space twice in a 14-day span. She said her family plans to play a major part in financing further X Prizes, with the next one possibly rewarding a privately funded lunar lander or orbital flight.

Ansari, who lives with her husband near Dallas, also plans to give presentations at schools and create educational materials in hopes of attracting more young people to the space sciences.

"We need new propulsion systems, we need new innovations ... and I'm hoping the young minds that are going into this field will come up with revolutionary ideas for the future," she said.

In addition, she is developing a company aimed at bringing Web access and Internet-based services into the homes of people without computer skills. The company was launched the day of her liftoff last month.

At the ceremony outside Moscow, Ansari wore a white, flower-patterned head scarf over her coat to protect against the cold and placed flowers at a monument to the first human in space "” Russia's Yuri Gagarin.

Speaking Russian and choking back tears, she said that along with Iran and the United States, she now has a third country in her heart: "Russia, where my dream came true."

The commander of Russia's air force, Gen. Vladimir Mikhailov, praised Ansari's conduct during the trip. "For such courage, we could have paid her the money," he quipped, "but in that case there would be a huge line of people hoping for space flights."

Ansari may be near the front of the line for the next trip. She said she had a firm offer from the Russians to make a repeat voyage.

"They have definitely offered me the opportunity, and I'm certainly interested," she said.

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