Fifteen years before Amazon founder Jeff Bezos propelled himself into space in a rocket, Anusheh Ansari became the first female space tourist to spend nine days on the International Space Station aboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. She is still the only woman to have traveled to space on a self-funded mission that cost her $20 million.
Today, Ansari is the CEO of XPrize, a California-based nonprofit that organizes multimillion-dollar competitions to support scientific innovation and benefit humanity. The first competition (sponsored by his family and priced at $10 million) was aimed at building the world’s first non-government-funded spacecraft. The winning design was licensed by Richard Branson, who used it to build the Virgin Galactic rocket that he had aboard the July spacecraft (nine days before Bezos).
Q: Looks like space craze is going on among the billionaires of the world right now. What inspired you to go on a space mission?
a: Ever since I was very young, I always wanted to go to space. It inspired me to study science, physics, maths and go in the direction I went. It was a great passion of mine to understand our universe and I still relate to how it was formed. For me, it is this extraordinary place of discovery and exploration.
The reason for the current flurry of activity is that in the past, space travel was something only government astronauts could do. Now there are new ways to go into space—whether it’s going to the edge of space for five minutes of weightlessness, or orbiting Earth for a few days, or visiting a space station. The cost is still high, but over time, it will drop.
Q: Why do you think Mr. Bezos and Mr. Branson flew into space?
a: I know them both, and they’re both big space fans. Jeff Bezos grew up reading Jules Verne and has had a passion for space for many years. Branson purchased 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 fad. This is something that he has passionately observed throughout his life.
Q: What made you spend $20 million on your space travel in 2006?
a: For me, I would have paid with my life. It was not about money. I felt it was part of my purpose of living on this earth.
Q: What was life like on the space station?
a: My time there was partly spent 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 am on this planet. It helped me see the big picture.
Q: What about the practicality of spending nine days there?
a: Life on the space station is like a child’s and everything needs to be re-learned – whether it’s washing your hair, eating food in space, or working in space. You’re in microgravity, and things are different. You can’t take a bath. water floats; It doesn’t flow. There’s no cooking going on, and there’s no refrigerator. So all food forms are either dehydrated or in cans. You are swimming and not sleeping in bed, so you have to get used to it. You are not moving here and there, you are flying here and there. Realizing that you don’t need to exert that much force to spin takes time. I beat myself several times around the space station, and got hurt.
When you’re orbiting the Earth, you see a sunrise and a sunset every 90 minutes, so your biorhythm is completely useless. Your body goes through a lot of changes. You get this surge of fluid that travels up to your head and causes a headache and puffiness. Your spine is stretched, so you are tall, but you feel back pain. your muscles change; Your bone density changes. Gradually your body also begins to adapt and change.
Question: How is space exploration and travel useful to humanity?
a: Space is the answer to our future on Earth. As the population increases, 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 the sun’s sustained energy to power our cities, for example, and to move some manufacturing into orbit so that its negative impact on our environment Do not fall Space will enable us to understand our planet and predict things better.
Many of the technologies we use today come from the space program, whether it’s lightweight materials used in clothing or shoes, or lightweight materials used in aerospace, satellite entertainment, GPS systems, banking systems.
Q: Three years ago, you moved to the non-profit organization XPrize. Can you talk about its mission?
a: XPrize launched large-scale competitions to solve humanity’s great challenges. We focus on specific problems that are stalled due to lack of funds or lack of understanding or attention. Right now a lot of our work is focused on climate change, energy, biodiversity and conservation.
Q: How do your contests attract such huge sums of money?
a: Not us, teams do. When we have a $10 million contest, someone who is sitting on their couch at home just thinking about something will have a reason to make it. They form a team, and we connect them with potential investors.
Q: Are you tempted to go to space again?
a: I would love to go back to space at some point. I would be happy and willing to live in space. I felt at home when I was on the space station; I experienced a freedom that I had never felt before.
Question: A spiritual experience?
a: Yes, it was a spiritual experience – but not because I felt close to God, because I don’t believe that God is there and if you go into space you get closer to Him! I felt like I was reaching a different level of understanding of humanity.