Anousheh Ansari: The First Female Space Tourist

If you can dream it, you can do it“. In the mouth of someone other than Anousheh Ansari, this incantation might sound a little mawkish… But coming from the first female space tourist, from a successful serial entrepreneur who was featured in Fortune magazine’s “40 under 40“, from a visionary who wants to put technology at the service of a safer and more sustainable planet, these words take on their full meaning. Space tourism… a dream for many of us, but what else?

THE STRENGTH OF DREAMS

As a child, Anousheh Ansari used to look at the stars when life became too hard. Born in the 1960s in Iran into a modest family, she emigrated to the United States at the age of 16, without speaking the language. She invested herself fully in her studies, to the point of obtaining a master’s degree in electrical engineering from George Washington University. She has an honorary doctorate from the International Space University, and later earned a master’s degree in astronomy from Swinburne University.

Her first entrepreneurial experience was a success: she sold her company Telecom Technologies Inc. during the euphoria of the Internet bubble in January 2001. She was 34 years old. This success gave her the means to pursue her dreams: in 2006, she shared the life of astronauts in the International Space Station ISS for 10 days, becoming the first privately-funded space tourist. At the same time, she created the company Prodea Systems, which develops intelligent services thanks to the Internet of Things (IoT).

Convinced that there is no other solution for mankind than to exploit the resources of space, she cofinances the Ansari X Prize, endowed with $10 million each year, to encourage the private space industry. The XPrize Foundation, which she heads, promotes research and innovation by targeting problems “that governments and companies don’t address”. In biology, aerospace, agri-food, materials science, the circular economy… the foundation’s awards support the most innovative and disruptive projects.

Key dates

  • 1966: Born in Mechhed, Iran.
  • 1978-1979: Iranian Revolution.
  • 1984: Arrival in Washington D.C. in the United States.
  • 2000: Resale of the Telecom Technologies company, founded with her brother-in-law and her husband.
  • 2006: Departure for a ten-day flight to the International Space Station. 
  • 2018: Appointed CEO of the XPrize Foundation.

THE FIRST FEMALE SPACE TOURIST

On September 18, 2006, the space shuttle Atlantis took off from the Baikonour Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. This was the start of Anousheh Ansari’s 10-day International Space Station (ISS) flight. Her participation in this trip, however, was only held by a thread. She was admitted to the Russian space program as a replacement for a Japanese cosmonaut.

Anousheh’s journey was full of adventures. Twenty-four hours after the launch she began to show symptoms of space flight: lower back pain, severe headaches and stomach aches. The onboard doctor immediately gave her injections. The process of docking at the station seemed very long but once inside and after taking off her suit, she felt much better and happy to be “home”.

On board the ISS, Anousheh Ansari participated in several scientific experiments for the European Space Agency (ESA), which aim to determine the effects of space travel on the human body. Blood samples were taken before and after his departure to determine the effects of cosmic radiation on the human body. She was tasked with taking bacteria samples from the International Space Station. The bacteria samples come from her body but also from objects on board the ISS. Anousheh Ansari was also tasked with taking photographs and working on an educational project. She wanted to share her experience through a blog from space.

During the journey, she was able to experience life in space with all its daily routine. On her blog she answered many questions from people following her trip, especially about hygiene in space: how do you take a shower and brush your teeth when the water doesn’t flow but floats? You have to improvise, she says, use wet towels and wash yourself with floating water: a great challenge ! Moreover, as water is a rare and precious resource in space, every drop of water in the air or used is filtered to provide water for the crew, who finally consider themselves as siblings because technically they drink each other’s recycled sweat.

She explains that the astronauts also had to do physical training every day in order to limit the effects of weightlessness on their muscles and bones, otherwise their muscles could atrophy from lack of use. The surprising thing is that without gravity the physical exercises are effortless. This can also be an advantage, because it is easy to lift objects weighing several tons without any effort and to throw all kinds of things to each other. Getting around was still quite difficult for Anousheh, though, as she had to move around in an environment comparable to water, which reminded her that she was just a rookie compared to the rest of the crew. Eventually, the journey also required sacrifices that can make longdistance travel difficult, from the effects of weightlessness on the astronauts’ bodies to the very strict diet on board. Indeed, each meal was made of canned food and dry or frozen vegetables.

The trip was not exactly restful. Every day the astronauts get up at the equivalent of 4 am to eat a meagre breakfast and participate in a meeting with the teams on earth, in order to plan the day: machine checks, medical checks… a whole process that makes the days dense and short. In the evening all the teams meet to take stock of what has been done and to plan the day ahead. After everyone has gathered for dinner, the astronauts go to bed at around 7:30 pm.

During this trip, Anousheh realized that the trip itself was more important than the destination. Although it was incredible and the goal of many years of training, dreaming, and a long journey, it will be impossible for her to forget the friendships she has made, the experiences, and the many things she has been able to learn during her training.

It was such an experience for her, that it brought many things in her life into question. A trip into space allowed her to take a step back and distance, she says. “When you return to Earth, you no longer perceive things in the same way, especially the world and the fragility of the planet. You really get a sense of the infinity that we represent in such a vast universe, and paradoxically, you feel like you are part of something bigger, a universe that seems so far away when you look at the stars from Earth“.

SPACE TOURISM: A REALITY SINCE 19 YEARS

Who has never looked up at the sky and the stars and asked “What is space like? What do we see from space? “Better still, since photographs can answer these questions: “How do we physically feel in space?”.

Some answers were given by specialists such as Neil Armstrong, Arnold Richard or Youri Artyukhin, who went into the cosmos to carry out explorations carried out in the framework of research and intended to advance the science of astronomy. But, they are no longer the only ones who can relate their experiences in space. Indeed, others had the chance to put on the cosmonaut costume, this time to make a dream come true. Such was the case, in 2001, of the millionaire Dennis Tito, the first “space tourist” to access this “tourist” trip after NASA’s agreement, obtained after heavy negotiations. In 2006, will follow Anousheh Ansari, fourth space tourist and first woman in the world to attempt the adventure described above.

For the moment, the financial cost of space travel means that this tourism is only reserved for a lucky few. Indeed, suborbital flight, the least expensive, still costs about 200,000 euros. As for the flight within the ISS, as Dennis Tito or Anousheh Ansari have experienced, it costs millions of dollars. But since her 10-day trip to the ISS, Anousheh Ansari has been investing in research, including co-funding the Ansari XPrize, thereby encouraging the space industry in the private sector. One of the objectives of this award is to make these flights more accessible and affordable to civilians, thus opening them up to wider commercialization.

Despite the hope for some to realize a dream, the “green light” given to this new type of space travel and the new ambitions revolving around it raise questions.

WHAT ABOUT “MASS SPACE TOURISM”?

The science of astronomy requires specialized, advanced knowledge, a unique and elitist education, and ultimately, on the scale of the world’s population, few have had the opportunity to observe the earth from very high up.

Of course, tourists need to follow a very advanced training, as was the case of Mrs. Ansari who followed an 8-month apprenticeship. On the other hand, there is no guarantee that no problems will occur during these stays.

A first issue comes into play: what about responsibility? The visitor is globally passive and must follow the instructions of the specialists and put into practice the lessons learned from the training followed beforehand. This seems to imply that the travel company would be bound by an obligation of result in terms of passenger safety and would therefore be solely responsible.

This is what Elon Musk, boss of SpaceX, who intends to send several tourists into space in partnership with Axiom Space, seemed to be saying. He declared: “if it goes right, it’s a credit to the SpaceX-NASA team. If it goes wrong, it’s my fault” on CBS. Let us note that NASA, at the beginning very reluctant at the idea of allowing pleasure trips, was actually afraid that the presence of a civilian on board the ISS would be a source of insecurity.

Another issue, Ms. Ansari, who works to promote and even facilitate tourist travel in space, has she considered the environmental impact of these trips? What will become of the debris caused by them? Moreover, the presence of tourists could limit the work of scientists, or at least force them to take these “intruders” into consideration each time they take action in space. The great space treaties, but also the law of commerce, would therefore also apply to this part of the universe, which until now has been invested almost exclusively in the name of science and research.

Some people are sounding the alarm, including the director of public affairs at the Cité de l’espace in Toulouse (France). He declared in 2019 that he did not believe in the “democratization” of space, notably because of its financial cost. He added that the professionals of the Cité de l’espace were firmly opposed to the development of this industry, pointing out that these leisure flights risked weighing heavily on the ecology. Is space, an area invested only by specialists, finally accessible to all? One thing is sure… space tourism will not soon be out of the spotlight, because SpaceX and other actors really intend to develop this activity.

To be continued…

This article was written by Corinne BAUDOIN, Laetitia PIETRI, Pierre-Yves VILLARD, Guillaume BRESSON, Bianca-Laetitia TOMASI, Élise DRILHON and Esther SENG GARCIA (Paris-Saclay).