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Boldly going beyond the stars

By Simon Hooper for CNN
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(CNN) -- Anoush Ansari may have become the first female space tourist on Monday, but she is only the latest in a lengthy list of female pioneers to blaze a trail across the stars -- and that doesn't just mean Star Trek's Lieutenant Uhuru or Star Wars' Princess Leia.

"I'm just so happy to be here," said Ansari, an Iranian-American entrepreneur who reportedly paid around $20 million for a place aboard the Russian Soyuz TMA-9 capsule bound for the International Space Station, shortly before takeoff. She added that she hoped her trip would inspire girls in her homeland to study science.

Lieutenant Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space in 1963, just two years after Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the earth. And like Ansari, Tereshkova blasted off aboard a Russian spacecraft from Baikunor Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, then part of the Soviet Union.

Between the two, 46 other women have crossed the threshold, although for most of the past 43 years it has been the U.S., rather than Russia that has taken giant steps in the cause of feminism in space.

Despite the Soviet Union's commitment to sexual equality, just two female cosmonauts followed Tereshkova into space.

Meanwhile, female astronauts have routinely been used by NASA on space shuttle missions.

There were two women among the seven-strong team aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger, which exploded after take-off in 1986, including Christa McAuliffe, a teacher who had been chosen from 11,000 applicants to take part in the mission.

In fact, space has become an environment in which it is widely expected that women should do the same job as men. "There is very little difference between men and women in space," British astronaut Helen Sharman said following her debut space flight in 1991.

Aboard the ISS jobs are shared equally, although cosmonauts have admitted paying more attention to their appearance with women around them -- and mixing men and women together can cause unexpected problems.

When American Peggy Whitson spent six months there with two Russian men in 2002 cosmonaut Valery Korzun admitted his most nerve-wracking moment of the trip was when he was called on to cut his female colleague's hair.

"He was very nervous the whole time and said it was probably bad for his heart to cut a woman's hair," said Whitson on her return.

Ansari, 40, may also have paid slightly more attention to her wardrobe than the average cosmonaut, choosing overalls in her favourite shade of blue and also packing moisturizing cream, lipstick and lotions for the 12-day trip.

And while women may have broken through the glass ceiling in terms of near-earth space flights, it seems likely that any longer-term missions in the future will be men only affairs -- at least in Russia.

Following an experiment in prolonged confinement designed to simulate a possible mission to Mars, Russian scientists concluded that a female presence "increases the probability of conflicts."

Ansari said she hoped her trip would inspire girls in her homeland to study science.


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