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Dreaming Big – we interviewed Anousheh Ansari, the first Muslim woman and the first Iranian to travel to space!

Interviewing accomplished and amazing people is a given in this job, but meeting someone who has been to space was a first for us, and an absolute highlight. Anousheh Ansari flew in from Dallas, Texas, last month as a guest of the Singapore Committee for UN Women, and was happy to sit and chat about her cosmic adventures.

The Iranian-born American citizen has received many accolades: first self-funded woman to fly to the International Space Station (ISS), first Muslim woman in space and first Iranian in space. It’s been nine years since she achieved her ultimate travel dream, but she still speaks with passion about it, and says that nothing can ever come close to the experience.
 

Anousheh Ansari
 

Firstly, why are you in Singapore?
I receive many requests, and this invitation to speak at the Singapore Committee for UN Women’s SNOW (Say No to the Oppression of Women) Ball fits with the kind of engagements that I usually accept – those with a focus on youth, female entrepreneurship and empowerment. I came to inspire women, and the women that they support, to say that you cannot give up hope. You have to always look for opportunities and be ready to take them.

Looking back on your space travel experience, is it right that you weren’t originally scheduled to travel on that particular expedition?
In February 2006, I was asked to serve as the backup for a private space explorer from Japan who had been slated for the trip in September. I agreed, and shortly after that I started my six-month training course in Star City, Russia, as well as cross-training at Johnson Space Center in Houston. In August 2006, just a few weeks before the scheduled flight, he was medically disqualified. As his replacement, I became a primary crew member of the Soyuz TMA-9.

Did you have to undergo full astronaut training?
It included classroom training, simulator training, zero gravity training and survival techniques – the same training received by astronauts, but at what is known as “user” level. Astronauts undergo around two years’ extra in-depth training, up to “repair systems” level. However, I had to take an active role as crewmember.

Can you describe your feelings as you prepared for lift-off?
We spent two-and-a-half hours in the capsule preparing launch procedures. After that, they put some music on and we had a chance to relax – it was actually very Zen-like, waiting for the moment when my dream would come true. I had watched the ISS Expedition 13 launch during my training so I was prepared for a lot of noise and explosions, but as the Soyuz lifted off at 2.5G, from inside the capsule the launch felt surprisingly smooth.

How many crew members were there?
I was part of Expedition 14, which had a crew of three. Our mission was to relieve the Expedition 13 crew after their six month mission on the ISS.

How long were you in space?
Two days to travel to the ISS, where I spent eight days before returning to Earth. The trip back took about four hours. The habitation module is where you eat, sleep and go to the toilet. It’s also fairly small. With all the cargo, you have enough room for three people to stand next to each other. The ISS is a much roomier place. Considering you are living 220 miles above the earth, it has all the necessities to live comfortably.

In your professional life, have you ever felt the need to prove yourself because you’re a woman?
All the time, but I haven’t let this make me bitter. It’s just been an extra step that I’ve taken to get to my destination.
 

Singapore Committee For UN Women
 

The Background:
When Anousheh Ansari arrived in the US aged 16 with her family, she spoke no English. After high school, she earned a bachelor’s degree in electronics and computer engineering, followed by a master’s degree in electrical engineering from George Washington University. In 1994, Anousheh and her husband used all their money to start Telecom Technologies. The company developed a “soft switch”, which enabled voice communications over the internet. In 2001, they merged with Sonus Networks, in a deal worth approximately $750 million. Today, along with philanthropic work, her main focus is the family technology company Prodea Systems.

Your background is in electrical engineering; tell us about your interest in careers in STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
What I really want is more women involved in STEM education. Even in developed countries I see girls discouraged from going into these fields; they think it will be too difficult or that they will become social outcasts – neither of which is true. Our lives are and will become even more dependent on technology and I want women to be involved in designing these technologies; everything is still being designed by men. With more women involved, we will have better solutions and better designs. Overall, when you look at the trends, not many people are going into STEM. If we don’t encourage the future generation into STEM we will have a problem; one person’s formal education takes at least a decade, so it’s not something we can solve overnight.

What was the best thing about being in space?
The feeling of weightlessness; nothing compares to the absolute freedom I felt when I could literally fly across the room, propelled by the gentle push of a single finger.
 


Describe the experience of living in ISS and Soyuz.

The ISS is a habitable satellite which launched in 1998; it rotates 200 miles above the earth and is about the same size as a three-bedroom house; it moves at a speed of 17,500 miles per hour and rotates around the earth once every 90 minutes so it’s possible for its inhabitants to see 16 sunsets and 16 sunrises in one day. Only 220 people have visited the ISS.

The Soyuz is comprised of two habitable areas, the descent module and the habitation module. Both are fairly small. The descent module is where the three crew members stay during launch and landing; each one has a seat liner that has been moulded to their body – the space is cramped.

Tell us about the two non-profit organisations you support.
Ashoka supports social entrepreneurship, including projects in the Middle East and Central Asia; PARSA Community Foundation promotes strategic philanthropy and social entrepreneurship among the global Iranian community. ashoka.org | parsacf.org

Do you have any plans to return to space?
I would love to, but I don’t have a specific date. I would like to participate in a flight with Virgin Galactic when they start their sub-orbital flights, and I would love to do another orbital flight. I’m trying to stay in shape to make sure that if an opportunity comes around, I can do it. I’m ready for that door to open.

Women’s empowerment and gender equality throughout the region is the focus of the Singapore Committee for UN Women, and their wide-ranging programmes aim to provide women and girls with access to education, healthcare, economic independence and a life free from violence and abuse.

This article first featured in the December 2015 issue of the magazine.

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