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)

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I hate to say it, but I don’t have much hope in adults. I concentrate lots of my time to show that [peaceful image of the world] to children because they have open minds about things.

A&S: You mentioned once that you dream of space becoming a viable vacation option for families. In your mind, what would have to happen to the space industry to make that a reality?
I think private industries have to play a big part in it, but definitely lots of technology has to be developed with help from the government. By far, [the government has] the greatest base of knowledge. It would require breakthrough technology. Private industry has the power and capital to take things the government has dreamed up and get it to a point of feasibility, and optimize it for cost savings. Private industry can do volume production and volume use to bring the cost down. It will have to be a partnership. Flights [to space] and the environment you live in have to be very safe and comfortable.

A&S: If you were designing a space station just for sightseers and vacationers, what would you want in it?
Ansari: I would definitely have a lot of windows. That’s very challenging because of exposure to radiation. If we can find shielding to protect people inside, I would definitely have tons of windows. The best part of being in space is the view.

I would absolutely want to have a regular shower. [“Showering” on the space station consists of wiping yourself daily with various cleansing cloths.]

I would come up with toys or experiments for people. For example, kids do experiments in school like mixing oil and water. They could try the same experiments in space and get totally different results. Balls and toys and gyros behave so differently in zero gravity. I would provide tools so people can experiment with a microgravity environment.

Just being able to float around is wonderful too. So I would provide floating spaces. The first time you’re in zero-G and try to move forward, you try to swim forward. Even though [the other astronauts] told me it doesn’t work, I automatically, subconsciously, started doing strokes like I was swimming, but I didn’t go anywhere. Everything is different in space—how you eat, how you move, how you use things. You can’t sit down because you float off the chair.

A&S: You dreamed of becoming an astronaut when you were a child. Why didn’t you choose that path when you became an adult?
Ansari: I came to the United States to study, and when I arrived, my first thought was “I can be an astronaut.” But my family and I arrived with nothing and had to start life over again—I wasn’t a U.S. citizen. At that time, Iran was experiencing lots of conflicts. I was realistic and practical. I asked myself what are my chances of making a living as an astronaut, and I figured it probably wouldn’t be as high as if I studied a field that would make me money. I love science and math, so I picked a growing field—engineering. I never forgot about my dream. I thought “One day I’ll go and do it. Maybe I’ll become a telecom specialist and NASA will need one.” It was a longer detour than I thought.

What’s exciting for kids now is that NASA isn’t the only choice for space travel any more. With private industry getting involved building space ships and spaceports, there are other ways to get involved.

A&S: Is there anything in the astronaut training process or the spaceflight itself that was not as exciting as you thought it would be?
Ansari: I enjoyed the program because I was learning so many things and I loved it, but not everything I did was pleasant. The least pleasant were the continual medical exams. I hardly go to the doctor in a normal situation, so having to do all these tests and exams wasn’t something I enjoyed. It’s a trip you have to be in perfect health to take. There aren’t any doctors so you can’t have a problem. Even a cold could become very dangerous. So they try to make sure you’re in optimal health.

A&S: Your spaceflight and experiences in training were well documented the world over. Were there many differences in the questions (whether from the media or people responding to your blog) you received from the Iranian public versus Americans?
Ansari: There was a common thread. People wanted to know more about the specifics of my experience. I had tons of letters from Iranians congratulating me. I haven’t been in Iran myself for years, but I know that the majority of people are quite young—75 percent of the population is under the age of 30. Most young people in Iran are fascinated by everything that’s going on in the outside world. They’re not fundamentalists, they’re not after wars and fights. They’re the typical MTV generation. Iranians are number one in blogging. Because of the high level of unemployment and because there isn’t a lot of stuff going on in the country, the youth spend most of their time on computers and listening to music. Iranians are very different from their media portrayal. They thanked me for sending a positive image of Iranians to the media.

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