Fifteen years before Amazon’s 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 ever to have traveled to space on a self-funded mission, which cost her $20 million.
Today, Ansari is CEO of XPrize, a California-based nonprofit that organizes multimillion-dollar competitions to support scientific innovation and benefit humanity. The first competition (sponsored by her family and worth $10 million) was aimed at building the world’s first nongovernment-funded spaceship. The winning design was licensed by Richard Branson, who used it to build the Virgin Galactic rocket that he boarded on a July spaceflight (nine days before Bezos).
Q: There seems to be a space craze going on right now among the world’s billionaires. What motivated you to go on a space mission?
A: Since I was very young, I’ve always wanted to go to space. It’s what inspired me to study sciences, physics, math, and go in the direction I went. It was and still is a big passion of mine to understand our universe, how it’s built, my relationship to it. To me, it’s this extraordinary place of discovery and exploration.
The reason for the current flurry of activity is that in the past, travel to space was something that only government astronauts could do. Now there are new modes of going to space — whether it’s going to the edge of space for five minutes of weightlessness, or orbiting the Earth for a couple of days, or going to a space station. The cost is still very high, but over time, it will drop.
Q: Why do you think Mr. Bezos and Mr. Branson flew to space?
A: I happen to know both of them, and both of them are big space fans. Jeff Bezos grew up reading Jules Verne and has had a passion for space for many years. Branson bought the license for the winning spacecraft design in our XPrize competition, and invested hundreds of millions of dollars in building Virgin Galactic.
From the outside, it looks like another billionaire splurge. In the case of those two men, I know it’s not just a whim. It’s something they’ve passionately cared about all their life.
Q: What made you spend $20 million on your own space trip in 2006?
A: To me, I would have paid with my life. It wasn’t a matter of money. I felt that this was part of the purpose of my living on this earth.
Q: What was life like on the space station?
A: My time up there was spent partly doing scientific experiments with the European Space Agency, partly talking to a lot of students and telling them how it felt to be there. I also wrote a blog.
For me, it was a moment of reflection on my life, the reason I’m here on this planet. It helped me see the big picture.
Q: What about the practicalities of spending nine days up there?
A: Life on a space station is like being a child and needing to relearn everything — whether it’s washing your hair, eating in space, or working in space. You’re in microgravity, and things are different. You can’t have a shower. Water floats; it doesn’t flow. There’s no cooking going on, and no refrigerator. So all food forms are either dehydrated or in cans. You’re floating and not sleeping in a bed, so you need to get used to that. You’re not walking around, you’re flying around. Realizing that you don’t need to exert that much force to move around takes time. I banged myself around the space station many times, and got bruises.
When you’re orbiting the Earth, you see a sunrise and a sunset every 90 minutes, so your biorhythm is completely out of whack. Your body goes through a lot of changes. You get this surge of fluid that goes to your head and causes headaches and puffiness. Your spine stretches, so you’re taller, but you feel back pain. Your muscle mass changes; your bone density changes. Slowly your body starts adapting and changing as well.
Q: How is space exploration and travel useful to humanity?
A: Space is the answer to our future on Earth. As the population grows, as our way of life requires more consumption of resources, we won’t be able to sustain life as we know it without access to the resources of space. We need to build infrastructures and technologies that will give us access to the continuous energy of the sun to power our cities, for example, and to move some manufacturing into orbit so that it doesn’t have a negative impact on our environment. Space will allow us to understand our planet and be able to predict things better.
Many technologies we use today come from the space program, whether it’s the lightweight material in clothing or shoes, or the lightweight material used in aerospace, satellite entertainment, GPS systems, the banking system.
Q: Three years ago, you moved over to the nonprofit organization XPrize. Can you talk about its mission?
A: XPrize launches massive competitions to solve humanity’s grand challenges. We focus on specific problems that have been stagnant because of lack of funding or lack of understanding or attention. A lot of our work right now is focused on climate change, energy, biodiversity and conservation.
Q: How do your competitions attract such huge sums?
A: We don’t, the teams do. When we have a $10 million competition, someone who’s been sitting on their couch at home just thinking about something will have a reason to go build it. They form a team, and we connect them with potential investors.
Q: Are you tempted to go back to space again?
A: I would love to go back to space at any point in time. I would be happy and willing to go live in space. I felt at home when I was on the space station; I experienced a freedom 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 close to him if you go into space! I felt like I was reaching a different level of understanding of humanity.