An X-Prize Sponsor and Space Tourist

Anousheh Ansari talks about trips to orbit, past and future

Anousheh Ansari before her launch to the International Space Station in September 2006. (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

In September 2006, Anousheh Ansari became the fourth “spaceflight participant” to pay for a trip to the International Space Station onboard a Russian Soyuz capsule. As a member of the family that sponsored the $10 million Ansari X-Prize (awarded to aerospace designer Burt Rutan in 2004 for the first private sector suborbital flight), Ansari is committed to promoting and advancing commercial space exploration. She spoke with Air & Space associate editor Bettina Chavanne last summer about her dreams for the future of space travel.

A&S:In one of your blog entries before you traveled into space, you discussed the benefits of space exploration. What, for you, is the greatest good that space exploration can give to the world?
I see several benefits of space research. I believe, and I’ve been saying in many of my talks, that space holds the key to detecting and solving problems on earth. I think lots of good research and technology have been developed in the past [as a result of space flights], and people may not realize that. Satellite technology, GPS technology, telemedicine…they were developed from projects from the space program and then adapted for use here on earth. There are many more such projects that will be developed that will have the same advantages. There is also ongoing research in medicine, for example, that can’t be performed in earth’s gravity, but can be performed in a micro-gravity environment. I think all of this plays a big role.
And, I may seem pessimistic, but earth is in a position where it won’t always be a suitable environment for people to live on—with all the damage we do, the wars, and all the other dangers looming in the universe, there may be a day when human life on earth won’t be sustainable. It may not happen in the next couple of lifetimes, but it’s something that we should prepare to deal with. It’ll take many years, hundreds maybe, to be able to find ways to deal with that situation. These are things we need to start thinking about now. And also get our kids to think of that technology. That’s why projects to have settlements on the moon will be important. We need to study the human body and how it can be protected from the harsh space environment.

I don’t think [those aspects of space travel] are well publicized. Most places, when I talk to the public about the benefits of experiments in space, they get very interested and say “We didn’t know about that.” That’s why I believe private industry involvement is important, because government agencies aren’t motivated in generating that level of publicity. Or if they’re interested, the bureaucracy prevents them from doing as many things as private industry does. We need to create excitement around the space program. It’s lost its interest for both young and old. That’s a shame because I think it’s one of the most exciting things for kids. They can use their imaginations because imagination has infinite possibility. That’s why on a very small scale, I have been on a quest to go out and talk to people. I try to spend most of my time speaking at universities and schools and talking to people of different ages, trying to show them space is important, fun, and requires their attention.
I encourage people to get involved with it—and not everyone has to be an astronaut to be involved with the space program. The future industry will need doctors, biologists, geologists, and even architects to design structures for settlement. Space exploration needs a variety of skill sets. I try to get people to think about their careers in terms of how they can be applied to space.

A&S: In the past astronauts have been criticized for a perceived lack of personality and charisma. But is it their job to make space flight interesting to the population at large? In your opinion, how should we manage the public relations aspect of space exploration?
Ansari: It’s a combination of things. You’re absolutely right. The façade astronauts project is very serious, a military-looking type of image. They’ve been portrayed as unique individuals, and they are, but I think we should let kids know that astronauts aren’t super-humans, that anyone can become an astronaut or can be part of the space industry. We don’t want to set the bar so high they think they can never reach it.

I got the opportunity, going through the program, to get to know these people as individuals and not necessarily as [a face in front of] the camera. They are charismatic and they can generate interest. But the restrictions imposed on them prevent them from getting out there. It’s just the politics of the space program. There are tons of candidates, tons of prospective astronauts waiting to fly, and not all will get to fly. Sometimes they think, because of policy, that if they portray a stricter, government/military character, their rank [in order of who will get to fly into space] will be higher. You put all these elements together, and they become serious-looking individuals that have a hard time creating excitement.

One of the people who I think has made a dent in that recently is [astronaut] Sunita Williams, whom I met in Star City [the Russian town where cosmonauts and space tourists are trained at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center]. She has one of those really fun, really outgoing characters. She ran the Boston Marathon [on a specially equipped treadmill] on the space station. She is an excellent spokesperson [for the space program]. Especially with her background as a child of an [Indian] immigrant family and her achievements in her life. She’s also part of small group of women who have flown to space. She would be a good role model.

NASA should appreciate people creating an outgoing image for them. Then people wouldn’t be so apprehensive about showing that side of their personality in front of the camera.

A&S: Do you have any opinions about what NASA could do to galvanize the public into being excited about returning to the moon?
Ansari: They need to do more media programs. I’m not talking about the NASA Channel—sometimes it’s more fun to watch paint dry. You don’t see things moving very quickly and the announcer is talking technical jargon. Unless you have ISS manuals, you don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s geared to people who already have an interest in space.

NASA could, and should, generate more programs for average people, people who may not know anything about space. Instead of trying to be technical, NASA could talk about research. They never talk about research on the space station. What are they doing up there? What are the experiments? What are the results and potential uses? Sometimes I think the Discovery Channel does more for NASA.

A&S: What do you think will be the most long-lasting legacy of your space flight?
Ansari: That’s a hard question. I would like to think my legacy is bringing people together. I have shared my experience with lots of people, trying to communicate and convey the image of earth from space. The peace and tranquility you can observe from up there—we’re just all people living on this planet. It’s not Americans versus Chinese versus Indians versus whomever. Up there, none of that matters, because you can see how everything is connected.

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