MANILA, February 28, 2004 (STAR) By Joanne Rae Ramirez - Irene Mora, the first Filipino likely to conquer outer space, has been to "the edge of the earth" and loves it there. This year, she aims to go beyond it.

Irene, 31, flew on a space shuttle to the "edge of the earth" in 2000 as part of a research mission sponsored by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and in the darkness beheld "a sparkling diamond."

It was home, the earth she momentarily left behind.

This July, Irene, whose family hails from the island of Mindoro, hopes to travel to outer space, not as an astronaut, she corrects us, but as a cosmonaut. The Americans have momentarily scuttled their space exploration trips in the wake of the Feb. 1, 2003 Columbia space shuttle tragedy and Irene is going to take her chances with the Russians. The Russians are reportedly launching a space mission this July, with training to begin in April.

Irene was at The STAR yesterday to contribute a story to its sister publication, Ang Pilipino STAR Ngayon, and was recognized in the lobby by a STAR editor.

In a chat with STAR editors, Irene, who has a degree in electrical engineering and is a certified pilot, said flying to space is — ultimately — a journey towards oneself.

"You learn the limits to what you can do, and the greatness of what you can do," she pointed out.

"The universe is so huge, like a mansion with many rooms. If you lived in a mansion, would you be content to be in just one corner of it? No, you’d want to discover all the othe rooms!" she says.

She is "hooking up" with the Russians for a very special trip this July that may take the cosmonauts to the international space station and then to Mars.

Irene is thrilled that there may be life outside Earth, a prospect that humbles her.

She says she is joining the Russian space program because the Americans have put their space explorations on hold after the explosion of the space shuttle Columbia on Feb. 1, 2003. She had gone on flights with the female Indian astronaut who perished in the explosion, and thinks it was a twist of fate that it was the former, not she, who was finally chosen to join that doomed mission.

Irene says to her knowledge, there is no other Southeast Asian female astronaut ("space cadet," she says, is the more accurate term).

While waiting to go into outer space, Irene isn’t earth-bound for long, either, as she flies a lot of chartered planes. Based "somewhere in the universe," she quips, Irene shuttles between the US and the Philippines. As a pilot, she is usually in command of an Airbus, but she dreams of flying a C-130, the plane that transports skydivers.

Irene, whose baby pictures show her clutching either a plane or a space ship, has her own aircraft, a Cessna 172.

Born in Sacramento, California, Irene obtained her pilot’s diploma from the Embry Riddle Flying School in Tampa, Florida. After four years training in flying and a four-year engineering course which she completed in Japan on scholarship, Irene trained to be an astronaut.

She says it takes about $40 billion to train an astronaut and $20 million just to dress him up.

Training, she says, is "brutal."

Getting thrown off planes is part of OJT.

Still, to the smiling 31-year-old, the effort is worth it.

"Accidents can happen even in your sleep. So I am not afraid of flying. It makes me understand humankind more and makes me know myself more," she muses.

Because, in the end, even the farthest journey takes her back to herself.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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