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.

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.

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.

Competition in the sub-orbital market will be critical. If you keep prices at the $200,000 level, it will be a limited market. But if you bring the price down to the $10,000 level—and maybe ultimately in 25 years to $5,000—you will have lots of people. These flights don’t have to be very costly.

A&S: Nausea is a real issue for future space travelers. You struggled with it yourself during your training and then you were sick in space. What would you say to people who are worried that getting sick will mar their five minutes of zero-G?
Ansari: The first 18 hours of my flight, I was fine. I got sick because I set it off. The astronauts told me I shouldn’t do sudden movements, flipping around, and looking outside in Soyuz. Soyuz spins on its axis and orbits the earth. I was just so excited, I forgot my training, so I set it off. Aside from that, there’s medication astronauts take on short missions that have been used for a long time. You can’t take it everyday, but if you take one pill, that will sustain you and you’ll have an enjoyable experience. On a short suborbital flight people won’t have to worry about it too much.

A&S: What are your opinions on the personal spaceflight “revolution”? How close do you think we are to making space tourism a reality?
Ansari: I think we’re very close. The X-Prize has played a huge role in changing the paradigm about personal space flight. Before that, people laughed at it. When we [the Ansari family] became part of the X-Prize foundation at the beginning, three years before SpaceShipOne, when I talked about it, people said, “Are you crazy to put money in that?”

People couldn’t fathom it. Now those people ask “When can I fly?” It’s a revolution that has started, and it’s going on. It has gained support from regulatory bodies and government agencies. At first, the government held a harsh stance toward space tourism, but they’re softening. I think the industry will grow and flourish. I think it’s here to stay and won’t go away.

A&S: You’re involved in many projects. What direction is your career going to take from this point? Will you be involved in space travel again in the future?
Ansari: I certainly hope so. I’m definitely involved in educational aspects of space. I definitely hope I’ll be able to experience space flight again. I’ll definitely be on a sub-orbital flight because I’m a junkie now.

Career-wise, we’ve started a new technology company that has nothing to do with space, called Prodea Systems. I have been focusing on that product and hoping to have social uses for it. I’m also collaborating with people building space ships, and those developing regulatory information for spaceflight like those in insurance or law. If I see an area I can get more involved in, I will.

A&S: You attended the X-Prize Cup in October 2006, and I assume you talked to a lot of people about their ideas and dreams for space. You’ve also received a lot of feedback on your blog. Is there any one recurring theme you hear from the public in their comments regarding their dreams for space travel?
Ansari: One thing I hear a lot is, I think there’s a sort of mysterious draw that people have with Mars. I think Mars exploration and potential future flight to Mars is something lots of people are really excited about. At least people in the space industry. I think maybe it’s the concept of Martians or the possibility of life on Mars.

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

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.