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.”
After two days in the Soyuz spacecraft, sharing a very small space with two cosmonauts, you dock with the International Space Station (ISS) and you are asked if you would like to smell space?
“When they opened the hatch, there’s a little bit of space captured between the Soyuz side and the space station side. I took a whiff and it smelt like a burnt almond cookie to me. And that became this big thing [among the other astronauts] ‘space smells like an almond cookie to her!’ Later on I found out it’s because the thrusters they fire when they are trying to dock use a fuel that has cyanide in it and cyanide has an almond smell.”
So space probably doesn’t smell of anything?
“I don’t believe so [she laughs]…”
So what does the space station smell like?
“The space station is almost like a bachelor pad, so I don’t think they keep it up that well. On top of that you have equipment and wires and experiments. I’m an engineer and I’ve been in technology labs so it smells of that wire smell and also it’s a closed environment, so the air gets recycled and recycled, so it’s a very stale environment.”
A bit like if you were stuck in an aircraft?
“Imagine if you were stuck in an aircraft and the door wasn’t opened for several years – it’s something like that.”
But in your blog, you describe being on the space station as feeling like home?
“I’d never felt so at home before because it [space] was the destination I always wanted to go to. And I was finally there. It meant I’d accomplished something that everyone told me I couldn’t. I described it to some people as being like when people go on a pilgrimage to Mecca. For me it was my pilgrimage and I was there, I finally made it. I did feel at home and I didn’t want to leave.”
You had eight days on the ISS – you must have felt that was nowhere near enough – but what did you do in that short time?
“You’re given a pretty packed schedule. They even schedule your sleep, when you’re going to brush your teeth, everything is scheduled. There were a few experiments I was part of for the European Space Agency and there were set times that I performed them. I looked out of the window a lot and I did a lot of outreach because I felt it was important to share this experience. I felt that I was very privileged, that I was very lucky to be there. I know that there are lots of people like me who dream about this, so I wanted to share this experience and take them on the journey with me.”
You have been particularly keen to inspire women and must be pleased that Nasa recently announced that half of its latest astronaut intake is female. An announcement made, incidentally, almost 50 years to the day since the first woman, Valentina Tereshkova, flew into space?
“I love to see more involvement from women all over the world in the space programme. I think we bring a new perspective into everything we do because of the way we look at life. I always want to make sure that space and our access into space is used for peaceful purposes and I think by having more women involved, the chances of that happening will be greater. I want to see more women in all fields of science and engineering.”
You were brought up in Iran…for women in the Middle East a career in space is not an option and, for many, neither are careers in science and engineering.
“Women in Iran have persevered despite all the difficulties and limitations put on them and that’s what inspires me. I’m very proud to say I’m an Iranian woman and I hope that things will start changing and there will be more opportunities for them.
“But when I look at it overall in the Middle East there’s this cultural limitation that’s put on women saying that there’re certain jobs that a woman shouldn’t do or certain fields that a woman shouldn’t study. But if there are role models young girls can look up to they say ‘why not, she did it, she’s happy, she seems fine, why not me.’ So that’s why I hope myself, and other women in science and technology from the Middle East, can try to help them to help achieve their dreams and their goals.”
What would be your advice to anyone who wants to go into space?
“When I was looking at different ways of getting into space, I didn’t make a decision on one. You want to have plan a, b, c through z – so I would pursue any opportunities and, at the same time, save up. I’m hoping the cost of getting into space will come down and the opportunity will open up to more and more people.”
The price of a seat with Space Adventures on a Soyuz has now risen to some $50m but you’ve made it clear you want to go back into space. You’ve booked a seat with Virgin Galactic [which costs $200,000] – is that because once is not enough?
“I tell people it’s an addiction almost – that’s why I’m so happy about sub-orbital flights. I plan to go on Virgin Galactic and not just once but many times. I think there will be many more companies in the future and I’m working on my new business, so I will have enough money to fly with all of them.”
And what about Mars – would you sign-up to the plan for a one-way trip to the red planet?
“I would…and I come across so many people that would say the same thing. I can’t explain why I want to live in space but it’s something inside me.”
If you would like to comment on this article or anything else you have seen on Future, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter. You will also be able to hear an interview with Anousheh in the July 2013 edition of my Space Boffins Podcast.