The world's first female space tourist and a pair of professional astronauts will begin a two-day journey towards the International Space Station (ISS) early Monday, when their Russian rocket blasts off from the steppes of Central Asia towards the orbital laboratory.
A Soyuz TMA-9 spacecraft carrying ISS Expedition 14 commander Michael Lopez-Alegria, flight engineer Mikhail Tyurin and Anousheh Ansari--the world's fourth space tourist and the first woman to pay an estimated $20 million to fly in space--is set to launch at 12:09 am EDT (0409 GMT) from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
The Soyuz spacecraft will orbit the Earth for two days before catching up to the space station on Sept. 20, when it will dock at 1:24 am EDT (0524 GMT). Docking will occur only a few hours before NASA's space shuttle Atlantis is set to return to Earth after an 11-day mission that delivered the first new segment--a $372 million set of solar arrays and trusses--to the ISS since 2002.
Lopez-Alegria and Tyurin will relieve Expedition 13 Commander Pavel Vinogradov and NASA Science Officers Jeff Williams, who are completing a six-month mission on the ISS. Ansari will remain on board the station for eight days as part of a deal arranged between the Virginia-based space tourism firm Space Adventures and the Russian Federal Space Agency; she will return to Earth with Vinogradov and Williams on Sept. 28.
Expedition 13 flight engineer Thomas Reiter, a European Space Agency astronaut, will remain aboard the station as part of the Expedition 14 crew.
Another crew shuffle is scheduled to occur in December, when Discovery ferries Astronaut Sunita Williams to the station as part of STS-116. Williams will join Expedition 14 and replace Reiter, who will return to Earth with Discovery. The mission will be the fourth flight into space for Lopez-Alegria, 45, the second for Tyurin, 46, and the first for Williams, 41.
A busy mission
The Expedition 14 crew's busy schedule will include up to four spacewalks, the rewiring of the ISS power and cooling systems and activation of the new solar arrays brought up by Atlantis on STS-115. The new power configurations will one day allow the space station to power shuttles as they're docking. This will let shuttles remain in space longer and give astronauts more time to perform their tasks.
"I think we all consider ourselves fortunate to be on a mission that has milestones that are not just important but critical to go forward," Lopez-Alegria told reporters before the flight.
Ansari will be busy as well. The 40-year-old Iranian-American will conduct a series of scientific experiments on behalf of the European Space Agency during her stay aboard the station. The experiments will examine how weightlessness and space radiation can lead to the development of blood and muscle disorders in astronauts. Ansari will also help catalogue what microbe species are living alongside the space station's human inhabitants.
Private spaceflight's female first
Ansari was originally a backup for Daisuke Enomoto, a Japanese businessman who was first in line to become the world's next space tourist. But Enomoto was pulled from the crew late last month when it was discovered he had a medical condition that barred him from spaceflight. Ansari will be the first Iranian in space and she designed a patch for her spacesuit that incorporated both the American and Iranian flags.
In a recent SPACE.com interview, Ansari said she has long dreamed of going into space.
"I don't know how it began or where it began," she said. "Maybe I was born with it. Maybe it's in my genes. I don't know. My husband sometimes jokes and says you know I think you're not from this planet. You may have come from another planet and you're just trying to get back home."
In 2004, Ansari and other members of her family helped sponsor a $10 million competition to build a reusable manned spacecraft. The contest was later renamed the Ansari X Prize in honor of their donation.
Anasri said she hopes her experience will serve as an inspiration to women, especially young girls, and encourage them to pursue their dreams. Like others who have been in space, Ansari said she is eager to see the " Blue Marble " from space, in its entirety.
"I'm looking forward to the entire experience but I think one of the most special parts of it would be being able to see the Earth from space and to just experience that totality of it and see it as this beautiful blue planet swimming in the darkness of universe," she said. "It's something that I think will be very special."
Lopez-Alegria told reporters before the launch that he had some reservations about having space tourist aboard the station in its current unfinished state.
"I'm not a big fan personally of having those guys go visit the space station because I think the space station is still a place that is under construction and not quite operational," he said. "I don't think it's ideal. I think it's definitely the concept that space tourism is here and here to stay."
Expedition 14 crewmember Williams was very positive about Ansari's trip as a role model for others.
"I'm pretty proud of her as an Iranian woman of taking this step to actually show people who had ever had this opportunity in their life that it's possible," Williams said.
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- Image Gallery: Anousheh Ansari Prepares for Launch