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Female space tourist blasts off

Story Highlights

• Iranian-born American Anousheh Ansari begins 10-day journey
• Ansari is fourth space tourist, but first female to pay for trip
• Ansari founded, then sold, telecommunications company
• Ansari's net worth once estimated at $180 million
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MOSCOW, Russia (CNN) -- It was a first in the annals of space history. A Russian-built rocket carrying the world's first female space tourist blasted off Monday in Kazakhstan on a flight to the international space station.

Anousheh Ansari, a telecommunications entrepreneur, was accompanied by a U.S.-Russian crew on the Soyuz TMA-9 capsule. (Watch the rocket blast off -- 2:15)

The Iranian-born American will go down in the record books in a couple of ways. She's the first woman to pay her way into space and the first person of Iranian descent to get there. Ansari is the fourth space tourist.

Her colleagues on the flight, American Michael Lopez-Alegria and Russian Mikhail Tyurin, are starting a six-month stint in space. But Ansari will return to Earth in 10 days with the outgoing U.S.-Russian crew.

"The flight is normal, the crew feel fine," a flight controller at Mission Control near Moscow said according to Reuters news service.

In an exclusive interview with CNN, Ansari said she knows people will be watching -- a belief confirmed by the comments posted on her blog, Anshari prepare for her lifelong dream -- 2:42)

"Me being the first female has inspired a lot of women and girls in Iran, especially being Iranian, and I've received numerous e-mails, messages of different sorts saying how proud of me they are."

Ansari's left Iran at the age of 16 just a few years after the Islamic Revolution, in part because her family wanted her to pursue her passion for the sciences to the fullest extent possible.

When she arrived, she knew next to no English except for a few verses from the song "My Favorite Things," from the film "The Sound of Music."

But within the next several years, Ansari had taught herself English, earned a university degree and landed a job at MCI earning a little more than $26,000. There she met her husband.

She and her husband soon quit their jobs at MCI, cashed in their retirement savings, and ran up their credit cards to finance a telecommunications company they opened.

In 2000, they sold that company for more than half-a-billion dollars to Sonus Networks Inc. A year later, Fortune magazine estimated her personal wealth at about $180 million dollars. The stock price of Sonus has since plummeted, and Ansari is being sued for insider trading.

The Ansaris would not comment on the lawsuit, other than to note that she is no longer a Sonus officer, according to The Associated Press.

No ordinary sightseer

Ansari is contractually barred from saying how much she's paying for her seat, but indicated that it's similar to the estimated $20 million dollars the three space tourists before her reportedly paid.

Her trip comes amid strained Iranian-American relations, but Ansari said she has no plans to make political statements. She will, however, be wearing flags representing both countries on her uniform.

"I hope this shows that the people can be separated from the politics," Ansari said. "If you look at Iranians interacting with Americans -- sometimes inside Iran, sometimes outside Iran -- in most cases from what I've seen it's always a pleasant experience."

Ansari trained for the voyage for six month in Russia.

She learned Russian and about the Soyuz module taking her to and from the international space station and its life support systems.

That extensive preparation is one reason why she dislikes the term "space tourist."

"I think tourists are people who basically decide to go to some place and put a camera around their neck, and basically buy a ticket and go there. They donšt prepare. ...They donšt go through a lot of preparations. I spent six months here, and had to learn many different systems, and many new different technologies to take this journey, so I donšt think tourism [does] justice to this event," Ansari said.

Ansari has invested heavily into her fascination with space. She and another relative put up a significant portion of the $10 million reward for the winner of the Ansari X Prize. The X Prize was awarded to the first private company to build a rocket capable of two manned suborbital flights.

While her journey is about fulfilling her childhood dream, Ansari also plans to use her experience to help with a project to develop suborbital spacecraft. She hopes the project will make space travel more affordable and accessible to more people.

From CNN's Ryan Chilcote.


Anousheh Ansari gives a thumb's up early Monday for the mission, before the launch in Kazakhstan.


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