ARKALYK, Kazakhstan – Anousheh Ansari, the world's first female paying space tourist, returned to Earth on Friday after an 11-day sojourn in space capped by the bone-jarring journey from the international space station.
Ansari, Russian cosmonaut Pavel Vinogradov and U.S. astronaut Jeffrey Williams had left the station aboard a cramped Russian Soyuz capsule a little over three hours before landing as dawn broke over the steppes of Kazakhstan.
After the capsule entered the Earth's atmosphere, search and rescue teams in three planes and 12 helicopters tracked the trajectory and scrambled to help pull the crew out of the craft, which landed on its side.
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Officials monitoring the landing from Russia's Mission Control outside Moscow applauded after confirming that the capsule had landed in the target zone around 55 miles north of Arkalyk, Kazakhstan, at 5:14 a.m. Moscow time. The crew felt well, Mission Control said.
Ansari, wrapped in a fur-lined blanket to guard against the early morning chill, smiled as she sat in a chair surrounded by high grass after exiting the Soyuz.
An unidentified official presented her with a large bouquet of red roses. Vinogradov, munching an apple, and Williams sat in chairs nearby. Temperatures hovered around 27 F.
Ansari's husband Hamid surprised her, coming up from behind her chair and maneuvering around her space helmet to plant a kiss on her mouth.
Rescuers then picked up all three chairs and carried them to waiting helicopters for the flight to Kustanai, Kazakhstan, where they took part in a welcome ceremony.
All three space travelers, along with Hamid Ansari, were presented with intricately embroidered Kazakh robes and hats.
Anousheh Ansari said at the ceremony that the most striking things about her space journey were seeing the Earth from space and the deep friendship developed aboard the orbiting station.
From Kustanai, they flew to the Russian cosmonauts' training center at Star City outside Moscow.
They were accompanied by snails, worms and barley grown in experiments conducted aboard the orbiting station.
"Anousheh has done a good job — she's one of the team," ITAR-Tass quoted Vinogradov as saying.
The space travelers were to undergo a quick medical evaluation through monitors attached to their bodies as soon as they exited the capsule. The information, transmitted to a nearby medical tent, is then sent to the U.S. space agency in Houston for analysis.
Ansari, an Iran-born American telecommunications entrepreneur, was a last-minute choice for the mission, which blasted off from the Russian manned space launch complex in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, on Sept. 18.
Japanese businessman Daisuke Enomoto was scheduled to be on the launch, but he was scrubbed from the trip in late August for unspecified medical reasons.
Ansari, 40, was the fourth person, and the first woman, to pay a reported $20 million for a trip to the international space station. Briton Helen Sharman in 1991 took a trip to Russia's Mir station that she won through a contest.
Alexei Krasnov, deputy head of the Russian Federal Space Agency, said Friday that the price tag would rise to about $21.8 million to keep up with inflation but officials be careful not to set it too high.
"If we raise the price for a flight too high, we could pass the threshold when we lose a tourist market with good prospects," he said.
Ansari's two companions on the trip to the station, Russian Mikhail Tyurin and American Michael Lopez-Alegria, were staying aboard the station for a six-month stint along with German Thomas Reiter of the European Space Agency, who arrived aboard the U.S. space shuttle in July.
The return to Earth can be physically taxing; the heavy deceleration once in the Earth's atmosphere — from about 500 mph to 180 mph — inflicts severe G-forces on space explorers who have spent the previous weeks or months weightless. As it nears the ground, the Soyuz fires its engines to slow the descent again to about 3 mph.
In her native Iran, Ansari has become an inspiration to many women who chafe at the country's male-dominated rule. Scores of women went to an observatory near Tehran last week to watch the space station streak across the sky at dawn.
Russian media, too, have been fascinated by Ansari's flight, and over the past week TV has broadcast plenty of footage of her in the station — her two pigtails floating horizontally and making her look like Pippi Longstocking.