United States entrepreneur Anousheh Ansari has been training for six months to get away from it all. Unlike most tourists, she won't be sporting a camera around her neck, and come Monday she won't need a boarding pass to get on her flight.
That's because Ansari is no ordinary sightseer. In just three days she will escape the bounds of Earth to float around in the International Space Station (ISS) for 10 days. Iranian-American Ansari, the first female space tourist, will hitch a ride to the ISS aboard the Soyuz TMA-9 capsule along with Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin and U.S. astronaut Miguel Lopez-Alegria.
Originally, Japanese businessman Daisuke Enomoto was supposed to be the world's fourth space tourist under a deal arranged by the Virginia-based space tourism firm Space Adventures with the Russian Federal Space Agency. But Enomoto was disqualified late last month from flying due to a health concern, allowing Ansari to become a primary crewmember.
Ansari has been in quarantine since September 2 in Baikonur, Kazakhstan and has been keeping a blog to share her experience with those dreaming of spacelight, an effort Ansari wishes to continue as an outreach project upon her return.
In a telephone interview with SPACE.com, Ansari discussed the hardest part of her training, the most anticipated part of her trip, and why she takes offense to the term "space tourist."
SPACE.com: With only a few days before launch, what is there still left to do?
Anousheh Ansari: I think we pretty much completed all of our training. There are just some final procedural things that we are reviewing. There are also some ceremonial things that we will be doing in the next few days such as press conferences and meetings. We just completed our final fit check today so that was I guess one of most important steps before the launch, which was conducted successfully.
SPACE.com: How do your husband and family feel about your trip?
AA: As you can imagine, they're pretty excited. They know how long I have been waiting for this day and how happy I am that it's finally here. I know they're happy for me and at the same time I am sure that they're a bit apprehensive and a little nervous about the whole thing. I especially know my mom is really nervous. They're cheering each other up, trying to stay positive, focusing on the good things, and all praying for my safe return.
SPACE.com: What's it been like being far from them during your 6-month training?
AA: It's been the hardest part of being in training. We're a close family; we spend a lot of time together. Not being with them, especially not being with my husband has been the most difficult part of the training for me.
SPACE.com: Have you been able to visit each other at all?
AA: Yes, we've had several short visits. During my [training] time, he came to Star City a few times and we met for several weekends in Europe, which meant a shorter flight for both of us. But still, it's not the same because ever since we got married over 15 years ago we've spent almost 24 hours [of each day] together because we work together so it's been very difficult. We've never been apart for such a long time.
SPACE.com: And you will never be as far distance wise as you will be in a few days.
AA: That's true too!
SPACE.com: What projects did you have to give up to go on this trip?
AA: There were a couple of things that I was negotiating and working on. One of them had to do with installing a telescope on the ISS, which was a very involved program. I was trying to find out some of the activities that different space agencies were initiating to see if I could partner with them to bring a private or commercial aspect to it. Not to use it commercially but to use it for educational purposes for amateur astronomers and other people interested in astronomy.
Unfortunately, that's a very involved program that would have taken at least a year or two to get approved and get the potential documents done and the equipment certified. So I knew for sure that wasn't going to happen on my flight. But it's something that I am going to continue pursuing and it doesn't have to be coinciding with my spaceflight.
SPACE.com: How did you find out that Diasuke Enomoto wouldn't be flying? How did it feel to no longer be the back up?
AA: I was actually going back to my room after finishing my day of training and I received a call from "Space Adventures" telling me that I've been moved up to become part of the primary crew.
First I couldn't believe it. I thought they were joking with me and then as I started believing them I was in complete shock and total excitement and you know, I would've screamed if I wasn't embarrassed of the people around me.
SPACE.com: Do you consider yourself a role model for Iranian women and women in general?
AA: Well I certainly hope to be. In my work and everything that I have always done, I have tried to be an example.
I hope to inspire everyone—especially young people, women, and young girls all over the world, and in Middle Eastern countries that do not provide women with the same opportunities as men—to not give up their dreams and to pursue them.
It may seem impossible to them at times. But I believe they can realize their dreams if they keep it in their hearts, nurture it, and look for opportunities and make those opportunities happen. Looking back at my life, I'm hoping that I could give them a positive example how that could happen.
SPACE.com: When did your fascination with space begin? When was it that you knew this was the path you were going to take?
AA: It wasn't like a special moment that I just realized this is what I wanted to do. It was something that ever since I remember has been in my heart and a part of me. I always was fascinated by space and always wanted to learn more about it and wanted to experience it first hand by flying into space. I don't know how it began or where it began. Maybe I was born with it. Maybe it's in my genes. I don't know. My husband [Hamid Ansari] sometimes jokes and says you know I think you're not from this planet. You may have come from another planet and you're just trying to get back home.
SPACE.com: What are you most looking forward to on this trip?
AA: I'm looking forward to the entire experience but I think one of the most special parts of it would be being able to see the Earth from space and to just experience that totality of it and see it as this beautiful blue planet swimming in the darkness of universe. It's something that I think will be very special.
SPACE.com: I think other people who have made it to space have similar sentiments. The fragility of Earth often strikes them.
AA: I believe that's part of it. I hope that more and more people will get to have this experience because it does give you a new perspective on life, and on everything else like how to live your life and interact with your environment.
I've talked to different astronauts and cosmonauts and read their books, and think that it's a common theme that you hear from all of them. It does make a big difference. I am hoping that more and more people will be able to have that experience first hand and I think it may make our world a better place to live if more people flew to space.
SPACE.com: What experiments will you be participating in while on the trip?
AA: There are a few experiments, a couple of them with the European Space Agency that have to do with the effects of low back pain on astronauts and cosmonauts. The other one is on microbial lifeforms onboard the station and how they spread. I will also be doing some educational programs on the different laws of physics that I'm planning to videotape. Sometimes it's easier to demonstrate things like that in zero gravity environments.
SPACE.com: What advancements do you believe will emerge from private exploration of space?
AA: There's an infinite amount of energy resources out in space, that given the right technology and the right environment, we can benefit from.
Development of technology for travel to outer edges of space needs to be developed. And it's a necessity, I think for us, to start thinking about it now and start planning and designing because it's something that's not going to happen overnight.
It will take generations to perfect this type of travel means. So I am hoping to bring more attention to it, bring more private funding to it and to see more innovation happen because of the involvement of the private industry.
SPACE.com: On your website you mention that one of your goals as the first space ambassador is "to promote peace and understanding amongst nations." How do you envision space explorations will achieve such a lofty goal?
AA: I think based on what we were just talking about. The spaceflight experience gives you new perspective on your environment and the planet we live on and the understanding of how fragile it is and how our actions impact our environment.
Looking at it from up there you can't see any borders or any differentiation between different races or anything like that and all you see is one planet; one place that all of us have to take care of if we want to be able to live on it for a long time. Our current technologies and everything we have does not afford us the luxury of saying ok if we blow up this planet and make it inhabitable for ourselves we can pack up and live some place else. So on one hand you look at your safe haven on Earth and then you turn around and then you look at the blackness of the universe and see that there is not a lot of habitable planets or moons around you. You sort of feel like you need to take care of the precious gift you've been given and I think that's sort of how I am hoping the message would be.
SPACE.com: You don't like the term "space tourist" and call it an "over simplistic label to a complicated process." Can you further explain that?
AA: Absolutely. In a way I take offense when they call me a tourist because it brings that image of someone with a camera around their neck and a ticket in their hand walking to the airport to go on a trip somewhere and coming back to show their pictures. But I think spaceflight is much more than that.
I've been training for it for six months. I think if it is to be compared to an experiment or an experience on Earth it probably is closer to expeditions like people who go to Antarctica or people who climb Mount Everest. I mean that requires a lot more preparation, thinking, and studying or appreciation of the environment. So I would probably compare it more to an expedition than I would to a touristy trip to another city.
SPACE.com: You'll finally conquer space, so what's next for you?
AA: I'm going to go back to work. We're launching [a] new company. At the same time, there's a project that we've been working on for a couple of years now and it's to a point to be ready to be commercially launched. So we're really excited about that and that's one of the major areas I'll be concentrating on upon my return and whatever spare time I have I'll be spending it going around and promoting my educational activities through the "X- Prize Foundation."