Women's History Month Profile: Anousheh Ansari

March 30, 2009

Those of you who know me know that I have a hard-on for space stations. I even wrote a short story once which put an Asian American woman and a Muslim man on a space station, in the near future. PoC sci-fi, baby. Own it.

So you know I can't resist profiling Anousheh Ansari, the first Muslim woman in space, the first self-funded woman in space, and the first astronaut of Iranian descent. That's right. She's Iranian American. And she paid her own way.

Ansari is a 1.5 whose family emigrated to the States in the wake of the Iranian Revolution. She has a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering and computer science from George Mason University, a master's degree in electrical engineering at George Washington University, and is working towards a master's in astronomy from Swinburne. She subsequently worked at MCI, where she met her husband, Hamid Ansari. In 1993 she co-founded Telecom Technologies, Inc. with her husband and brother-in-law, which

grew rapidly, earning several major technology patents; the Ansaris
were able to sell it for hundreds of millions of dollars. The family
later formed Prodea Systems Inc., a digital technology and investment
company, in Plano, Tex., which is sponsoring Mrs. Ansari’s spaceflight.

Mrs. Ansari’s involvement in space is not new. In 2001, she and
her brother-in-law, Amir, made a multimillion-dollar donation for
naming rights to what became the Ansari X Prize, a $10 million award
for the first private company to build a rocket capable of two manned
suborbital flights in two weeks.

Ansari was on that first flight, and Prodea is a financing partner in developing another suborbital vehicle. Ansari says she had always dreamed of space flight. "“I’d lie there looking and wondering,” she said many years later. “I
was so young but so fascinated with space; it’s always been in my

The company developing these vehicles is Space Adventures, better known as the space tourism company that arranges for civilians to take trips onto the International Space Station with the Russian space agency. Ansari paid up to $20 million dollars for the privilege of being the fourth person to be a tourist in space, although she says the term "tourist" is insulting for someone who went through such intensive training. She compares it more to climbing Mount Everest.

She trained for six months with the Russian space agency to prepare for the flight, and got the go-ahead last minute when the passenger who was supposed to go on had to drop out because of a medical problem. (He wasn't refunded his $21 million and is suing.) She spent 10 days aboard the International Space Station, flying up with the relief crew, and flying back with the crew they were relieving. While there she conducted some experiments on behalf of the European Space Agency on lower back pain and how radiation affects microbes. She also kept a blog.

In an interview, she outlined some of her reasons for wanting to engage in private space exploration:

There's an infinite amount of energy
resources out in space, that given the right technology and the right
environment, we can benefit from.

... 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.

On the dark side, after she and her family sold out of Telecom Technologies, the stock plummeted, and she's being sued for insider trading. But even if it's true, I kind of love her. She wore both Iranian and American flags in space, and was very open and consistent about wanting to be a role model and inspiration for women and girls to explore space and become interested in science. And, given the hesitation of western governments to fund space exploration full throttle, seeing private enterprise step in is refreshing. Sure, there's a lot of money to be made from restless bajillionaires looking for a new extreme adventure, but I get a strong idealistic hit off of these companies. If they get somewhere, they'll be the first on the ground to milk whatever cash cow is milkable, but you can tell they also have stars in their eyes.

Ansari has taken some flak for spending so much dough for a 10-day vacation when people are starving back on Earth. She addresses the criticism thus on her blog:

How do you decide how to spend your money or effort when it comes down to making a change? ... Personally,
I almost always focus on long-term fundamental activities that address
the root causes of a problem. I may not feed hungry children, not
because I don’t care, but because feeding 100, or 1000, or 100,000 does
not solve the problem. Did you know that space research
helps figure out changes in soil conditions and environment and ways of
preventing crop damage?

Of course, we all know she'd go into space even if the research weren't there, because space travel is just amazing, for the people who do it, and for the people who see them doing it. Octavia Butler made that argument in Parable of the Sower, that even with the mess we have on Earth, as a people and a culture, we need to be able to look to the stars with a real hope of being able to attain more, as a race, as a species. So whatever Ansari's personal motives are, she's accomplished that much.

Here's Ansari's Space Blog, and her website.