Interview with Anousheh Ansari, the First Female Space Tourist

United States entrepreneur Anousheh Ansarihas been training for six months to get away from it all. Unlike most tourists, shewon't be sporting a camera around her neck, and come Monday she won't need aboarding pass to get on her flight.

That's because Ansari is no ordinary sightseer. In just threedays she will escape the bounds of Earth to floataround in the InternationalSpace Station (ISS) for 10 days. Iranian-American Ansari, the first femalespace tourist, will hitch a ride to the ISS aboard the SoyuzTMA-9 capsule along with Russian cosmonaut MikhailTyurin and U.S. astronaut MiguelLopez-Alegria.

Originally, Japanese businessman Daisuke Enomoto was supposedto be the world's fourth space tourist under a deal arranged by theVirginia-based space tourism firm Space Adventures with the Russian FederalSpace Agency. But Enomotowas disqualified late last month from flying due to a health concern, allowingAnsari 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 ofspacelight, an effort Ansari wishes to continue as an outreach project upon herreturn.

In a telephone interview with, Ansaridiscussed the hardest part of her training, the most anticipated part of hertrip, and why she takes offense to the term "space tourist." With only a few days before launch,what is there still left to do?

Anousheh Ansari: I think we pretty muchcompleted all of our training. There are just some final procedural things thatwe are reviewing. There are also some ceremonial things that we will be doingin the next few days such as press conferences and meetings. We just completedour final fit check today so that was I guess one of most important stepsbefore the launch, which was conducted successfully. How do your husband and family feelabout your trip?

AA: As you can imagine, they're prettyexcited. They know how long I have been waiting for this day and how happy I amthat it's finally here. I know they're happy for me and at the same time I amsure that they're a bit apprehensive and a little nervous about the wholething. I especially know my mom is really nervous. They're cheering each otherup, trying to stay positive, focusing on the good things, and all praying formy safe return. What's it been like being far fromthem during your 6-month training?

AA: It's been the hardest part of being intraining. We're a close family; we spend a lot of time together. Not being withthem, especially not being with my husband has been the most difficult part ofthe training for me. Have you been able to visit eachother 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 forseveral weekends in Europe, which meant a shorter flight for both of us. Butstill, it's not the same because ever since we got married over 15 years agowe've spent almost 24 hours [of each day] together because we work together soit's been very difficult. We've never been apart for such a long time. And you will never be as far distancewise as you will be in a few days.

AA: That's true too! What projects did you have to giveup to go on this trip?

AA: There were a couple of things that I wasnegotiating and working on. One of them had to do with installing a telescope onthe ISS, which was a very involved program. I was trying to find out some ofthe activities that different space agencies were initiating to see if I couldpartner with them to bring a private or commercial aspect to it. Not to use itcommercially but to use it for educational purposes for amateur astronomers andother people interested in astronomy.

Unfortunately, that's a very involved program that would havetaken at least a year or two to get approved and get the potential documentsdone and the equipment certified. So I knew for sure that wasn't going tohappen on my flight. But it's something that I am going to continue pursuingand it doesn't have to be coinciding with my spaceflight. How did you find out that DiasukeEnomoto wouldn't be flying? How did it feel to no longer be the back up?

AA: I was actually going back to my room afterfinishing my day of training and I received a call from "SpaceAdventures" telling me that I've been moved up to become part of theprimary crew.

First I couldn't believe it. I thought they were joking with meand then as I started believing them I was in complete shock and totalexcitement and you know, I would've screamed if I wasn't embarrassed of thepeople around me. Do you consider yourself a rolemodel for Iranian women and women in general?

AA: Well I certainly hope to be. In my workand everything that I have always done, I have tried to be an example.

I hope to inspire everyone—especially young people, women, andyoung girls all over the world, and in Middle Eastern countries that do notprovide women with the same opportunities as men—to not give up their dreamsand to pursue them.

It may seem impossible to them at times. But I believe they canrealize their dreams if they keep it in their hearts, nurture it, and look foropportunities and make those opportunities happen. Looking back at my life, I'mhoping that I could give them a positive example how that could happen. When did your fascination withspace begin? When was it that you knew this was the path you were going totake?

AA: It wasn't like a special moment that Ijust realized this is what I wanted to do. It was something that ever since Iremember has been in my heart and a part of me. I always was fascinated byspace and always wanted to learn more about it and wanted to experience itfirst 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 thisplanet. You may have come from another planet and you're just trying to getback home. What are you most looking forwardto on this trip?

AA: I'm looking forward to the entireexperience but I think one of the most special parts of it would be being ableto see the Earth from space and to just experience that totality of it and seeit as this beautiful blue planet swimming in the darkness of universe. It'ssomething that I think will be very special. I think other people who have madeit to space have similar sentiments. The fragility of Earth often strikes them.

AA: I believe that's part of it. I hope thatmore and more people will get to have this experience because it does give youa new perspective on life, and on everything else like how to live your lifeand interact with your environment.

I've talked to different astronauts and cosmonauts and readtheir 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 beable to have that experience first hand and I think it may make our world abetter place to live if more people flew to space. What experiments will you beparticipating in while on the trip?

AA: There are a few experiments, a couple ofthem with the European Space Agency that have to do with the effects of lowback pain on astronauts and cosmonauts. The other one is on microbial lifeformsonboard the station and how they spread. I will also be doing some educationalprograms on the different laws of physics that I'm planning to videotape.Sometimes it's easier to demonstrate things like that in zero gravityenvironments. What advancements do you believewill emerge from private exploration of space?

AA: There's an infinite amount of energyresources out in space, that given the right technology and the rightenvironment, we can benefit from.

Development of technology for travel to outer edges of spaceneeds to be developed. And it's a necessity, I think for us, to start thinkingabout it now and start planning and designing because it's something that's notgoing 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 itand to see more innovation happen because of the involvement of the privateindustry. On your website you mention thatone of your goals as the first space ambassador is "to promote peace andunderstanding amongst nations." How do you envision space explorationswill achieve such a lofty goal?

AA: I think based on what we were just talkingabout. The spaceflight experience gives you new perspective on your environmentand the planet we live on and the understanding of how fragile it is and howour actions impact our environment.

Looking at it from up there you can't see any borders or anydifferentiation between different races or anything like that and all you seeis one planet; one place that all of us have to take care of if we want to beable to live on it for a long time. Our current technologies and everything wehave does not afford us the luxury of saying ok if we blow up this planet andmake it inhabitable for ourselves we can pack up and live some place else. Soon one hand you look at your safe haven on Earth and then you turn around andthen you look at the blackness of the universe and see that there is not a lotof habitable planets or moons around you. You sort of feel like you need totake care of the precious gift you've been given and I think that's sort of howI am hoping the message would be. You don't like the term "spacetourist" and call it an "over simplistic label to a complicatedprocess." Can you further explain that?

AA: Absolutely. In a way I take offense whenthey call me a tourist because it brings that image of someone with a cameraaround their neck and a ticket in their hand walking to the airport to go on atrip somewhere and coming back to show their pictures. But I think spaceflightis much more than that.

I've been training for it for six months. I think if it is tobe compared to an experiment or an experience on Earth it probably is closer toexpeditions like people who go to Antarctica or people who climb Mount Everest.I mean that requires a lot more preparation, thinking, and studying orappreciation of the environment. So I would probably compare it more to an expeditionthan I would to a touristy trip to another city. You'll finally conquer space, sowhat's next for you?

AA: I'm going to go back to work. We'relaunching [a] new company. At the same time, there's a project that we've beenworking on for a couple of years now and it's to a point to be ready to becommercially launched. So we're really excited about that and that's one of themajor areas I'll be concentrating on upon my return and whatever spare time Ihave I'll be spending it going around and promoting my educational activitiesthrough the "X- PrizeFoundation."

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Sara Goudarzi
Sara Goudarzi is a Brooklyn writer and poet and covers all that piques her curiosity, from cosmology to climate change to the intersection of art and science. Sara holds an M.A. from New York University, Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, and an M.S. from Rutgers University. She teaches writing at NYU and is at work on a first novel in which literature is garnished with science.