In school, teachers tell us we can be anything we want; we should aim high, they say. Anousheh Ansari’s story is an example of why we should maybe listen to them. It is one that will make most of us feel like underachievers.
Ever since she could remember, Ansari wanted to be an astronaut. As a child she would draw pictures of herself sitting in a spacecraft, blasting into orbit. But, as a young Iranian girl growing up in the 1970s, becoming a space-farer was an unlikely career path – particularly in the aftermath of the 1979 revolution.
The goal seemed almost as elusive when Ansari and her family emigrated to the United States in 1984. Unable to speak English, the 18 year old immersed herself in education, graduating with a degree in electronics, followed by a masters in electrical engineering. She started her first business with her husband in 1993 and, less than 10 years later, she sold it for hundreds of millions of dollars. An impressive example of the American dream, but not enough for Ansari. She still wanted to be an astronaut.
In 2002, Ansari pledged $10m on the race to launch the first private spacecraft. When aircraft designer Burt Rutan won the Ansari X Prize in 2004, this started the development of space tourism. Now, at the very least, Ansari hoped she could get a seat on a spaceplane. But as no-one had built one that could carry passengers yet, with the money available and a life-long goal still unfulfilled, she decided to go one better, and spent some $20m with Space Adventures on a trip to orbit.
After six months extensive training, Ansari launched into space on a Soyuz rocket, in 2006, for a 10 day mission. In doing so, she became the first Iranian woman in space, the first woman to take a commercial spaceflight and the first woman to blog from space.
However, in one of her first dispatches from orbit, she revealed that not everything had gone to plan. Describing the feelings of space sickness – disorientation, nausea and vomiting – that she experienced during her first day in space, she wrote that she was angry with herself for getting ill. When I spoke to her recently at the Aspen Ideas Festival, I started by asking whether this anger said something about her character:
“I’m a very competitive person and when I do something I always want to do my best. So here it is, I’m realising my childhood dream, I’m in the Soyuz with these two guys - and as a woman I felt I always had to prove I’m very strong -and I’m getting sick.
“It was my fault because you go through the training and they tell you that for the first few days you shouldn’t move around a lot; move your head too much; you should make very small moves. But as soon as I was weightless, and lifted myself out of my seat, I was like a little kid and I couldn’t help myself. I go up so fast I hit my head on the other end of the module. Then I turn around and start flipping around and I’m looking out of the window and of course I get sick. And the next two days I can’t get over the motion sickness and I was mad at myself, I’m wasting two days of this amazing trip and I can’t even look out of the window anymore.”
But don’t a lot of astronauts get sick – it’s just that they never admit it…
“Yes, it’s just that everyone – especially people in the astronaut corps – they have to prove that they have the “right stuff”. And they are strong, they’re amazing people, but there’re a lot of things that happen to the human body when you go into space and motion sickness is one of them.”