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 also received many letters from Iranian women and young girls saying they were so proud of me, and that I am setting a good example for them. People said I inspired them. It was very emotional for me.

There’s an organization in Iran that publishes a monthly astronomy magazine. When they learned about my trip, they asked for an interview. I did a taped interview from Baikonur [the Soyuz launch site] before my trip. They aired it, and then organized a meeting for when the ISS did a pass over Iran. Tons of students showed up with binoculars and telescopes. People were pointing to the sky when I was passing over, and they wrote to tell me they were waving at me as I went over.

A&S: What would your ideal space science project be?
Ansari: Two things they did interested me: they do experiments with plants to observe how they grow and they do another one to see how embryos develop in zero-G. On one flight they had eggs they took up from a bird to see if they would hatch. They did hatch—but how did they come out? People would be fascinated to watch it on TV.

One other thing would be to do some experiments trying to take DNA samples from space—some believe DNA exists in space. It would be cool to do a space walk away from the station and swab the vacuum and to see if there’s truth to that.

We didn’t have time on my flight, but I wanted to see if I could put a telescope outside the station or on a satellite of the station and make that available to amateur astronomers and students so they could access it online and observe space from space. I love astronomy and astrophysics.

A&S: There are several notable companies competing in the commercial space flight arena—to be first, to be the most popular, the most successful. In your opinion, which company has the greatest odds of success and why?
Ansari: I can’t tell you for sure. I think many companies will be successful. It’s a venture that’s just starting up. Sometimes the first company to gain ground doesn’t end up to be the dominant one in the long term. Of course, I think Virgin Galactic and SpaceShipOne are ahead of everyone else because of the accomplishment they’ve already made. And they already have a global brand name like Virgin behind them. That branding combined with the fact that Rutan has achieved so much probably gives them a better chance. But I know there are several very smart entrepreneurs building space ships. I’m sure they’ll be successful as well, although it may take them longer to enter marketplace.

A&S: Why is there a need for more than one commercial space tourism company?
Ansari: We need the competition to bring prices down. Also, everyone’s approach is very different. If Blue Origin offers flight, it’ll be a completely different experience because the launch and landing are different. It will encourage people to try different ways of flying to space.

A&S: Do you believe that the thrill of five minutes of weightlessness is enough to sustain an entire industry? How do you think the commercial space industry is going to manage to keep a steady flow of customers when it’s such an expensive trip?
Ansari: I definitely believe so, and that comes from my personal experience. Once you experience weightlessness, you become an addict. There’s no way you come back and say, “Great I can move on now.” To do one of the suborbital flights is a more pleasant experience than doing a zero-G flight [in the KC-135 “Vomit Comet”] because [in the airplane] you do numerous parabolas—you have G forces and then none, back and forth, and some people don’t like that. With suborbital flight, you have a continuous time of weightlessness so it’s a more lasting experience.

Orbital flights will always be more complicated, with more health restrictions. They’re a lot harder on the body and not many people will want to do it. An orbital flight requires more training and preparation. Sub-orbital flights will basically be available to almost anybody regardless of health, age, etc.

Five minutes may not seem that long, but I’ve done zero-G flights for 30 seconds. In that 30 seconds, you can do so much and you remember every moment of those parabolas. It is still a significant experience. They’ll enjoy that.

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