Meet Anousheh Ansari, the only woman to ever travel to space on a self-funded mission

Fifteen years before Amazon founder Jeff Bezos catapulted himself into space in a rocket, Anousheh Ansari became the first female space tourist, spending nine days on the International Space Station aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. She is still the only woman to travel to space on a self-funded mission, which cost her $ 20 million.

Today, Ansari is CEO of XPrize, a California-based nonprofit that runs multi-million dollar competitions to support scientific innovation and benefit humanity. The first competition (sponsored by his family and worth $ 10 million) was to build the world’s first non-government funded spacecraft. The winning design was authorized by Richard Branson, who used it to build the Virgin Galactic rocket he took on a space flight in July (nine days before Bezos).

Q: There seems to be a space craze right now among the world’s billionaires. What motivated you to go on a space mission?
A: Since I was very young, I always wanted to go to space. This is what inspired me to study science, physics, mathematics and to go in the direction I took. It was and still is a great passion for me to understand our universe, how it is built, my relationship with it. For me, it is this extraordinary place of discovery and exploration.

The reason for the current wave of activity is that in the past, traveling to space was something only government astronauts could do. Now there are new ways of going into space – whether it’s going to the edge of space for five minutes of weightlessness, or orbiting the Earth for a few days, or going to a station. spatial. The cost is still very high, but over time it will go down.

Q: Why do you think Mr. Bezos and Mr. Branson flew into space?
A: I happen to know them both, and both are huge space fans. Jeff Bezos grew up reading Jules Verne and has been passionate about space for many years. Branson purchased the license to design the winning spacecraft in our XPrize competition and invested hundreds of millions of dollars in building Virgin Galactic.

From the outside, it looks like another billionaire madness. In the case of these two men, I know it’s not just a whim. It is something that they have cared about passionately all their lives.

Q: What made you spend $ 20 million on your own space trip in 2006?
A: For me, I would have paid with my life. It was not a question of money. I felt that was part of the purpose of my life on this earth.

Q: What was life on the space station like?
A: I spent my time there partly doing science experiments with the European Space Agency, partly talking to a lot of the students and telling them what it was like to be there. I also wrote a blog.

For me, it was a moment of reflection on my life, the reason why I am here on this planet. It helped me see the big picture.

Q: What about the practicalities of spending nine days there?
A: Life on a space station is like being a kid and needing to relearn everything, whether it’s washing your hair, eating in space, or working in space. You are in microgravity, and things are different. You cannot take a shower. water floats; it does not flow. There is no ongoing kitchen, and no refrigerator. Thus, all food forms are either dehydrated or canned. You are floating and not sleeping in a bed, so you have to get used to it. You don’t wander, you fly. Realizing that you don’t need to exert so much force to move takes time. I banged myself around the space station several times and got bruises.

When you are in orbit around the Earth, you see a sunrise and a sunset every 90 minutes, so your biorhythm is completely out of whack. Your body is going through many changes. You get that rush of fluid that goes up to your head and causes headaches and puffiness. Your spine is stretching, so you are taller, but your back hurts. Your muscle mass changes; your bone density changes. Slowly your body begins to adapt and change as well.

Q: How are space exploration and travel helpful to humanity?
A: Space is the answer to our future on Earth. As the population increases, as our way of life requires more consumption of resources, we will not be able to sustain life as we know it without access to the resources of space. We need to build infrastructure and technologies that will give us access to continuous energy from the sun to power our cities, for example, and move some manufacturing into orbit so that they don’t negatively impact our environment. Space will allow us to understand our planet and to better predict things.

A lot of the technologies we use today come from the space program, whether it’s the lightweight material in clothing or footwear, or the lightweight material used in aerospace, satellite entertainment, GPS systems, the banking system.

Q: Three years ago you joined the XPrize non-profit organization. Can you talk about his mission?
A: XPrize launches massive competitions to solve the great challenges of humanity. We focus on specific issues that are stagnant due to lack of funding or lack of understanding or attention. Much of our work at the moment is focused on climate change, energy, biodiversity and conservation.

Q: How do your competitions attract such huge amounts?
A: We don’t, the teams do. When we have a $ 10 million contest, someone who’s sitting on their couch at home thinking about something will have a reason to go build it. They form a team and we put them in touch with potential investors.

Q: Are you tempted to go back to space again?
A: I would love to go back to space anytime. I would be happy and willing to go and live in space. I felt at home when I was in the space station; I experienced a freedom that I had never felt before.

Q: A spiritual experience?
A: Yes, it was a spiritual experience – but not because I felt closer to God, because I don’t believe that God is up there and that you get closer to Him if you go in. space ! I felt like I was reaching a different level of understanding humanity.

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