Iranian-born American space tourist says Russia now third country "in my heart"

Anousheh Ansari, the Iranian-born American entrepreneur who rode a Russian spacecraft to the international space station last month, said Wednesday she now has a third country in her heart: "Russia, where my dream came true."

Ansari back on Earth after her 10-day adventure as the first paying female space tourist ended three weeks ago was feted by Russia's space establishment at a ceremony at Star City facility, outside Moscow, where she had trained for her flight.

"My heart is overflowing with gratitude," she said in Russian, appearing to choke back tears.

The commander of Russia's air force, Gen. Vladimir Mikhailov, praised Ansari's conduct during the trip, which reportedly cost her US$20 million (Ђ16 million).

"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 was honored along with Russian cosmonaut Pavel Vinogradov and U.S. astronaut Jeff Williams, who returned to Earth with her aboard a Soyuz capsule after their own five-month stint on the orbiting station, reports AP.

Ansari, a 40-year-old Texas electrical engineer and entrepreneur who helped finance a US$10 million (Ђ8 million) prize promoting privately financed space flight, had returned to the United States after her voyage.

She was back in Russia briefly for the ceremony, which featured a military band and a traditional Russian offering of bread and salt.

Wearing a white, flower-patterned Russian-style head scarf over her coat against the cold, she placed flowers at a monument to the first human in space, Russia's Yuri Gagarin.