The first woman to buy a ride to the international space station says she wants her flight to serve as an inspiration for expanding the final frontier — an expansion that extends even to orbital toilets.
Anousheh Ansari, who was born in Iran but made her mark as an telecommunications entrepreneur in the United States, is due to lift off in the company of two professional astronauts next Monday aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, for a 10-day trip to orbit and back. Although Ansari's contract bars her from disclosing how much she's paying, the published price tag for a space station flight is $20 million.
She's no stranger to supporting spaceflight with her own money: Several years ago, she and other members of the Ansari family provided financial backing for the $10 million Ansari X Prize, a suborbital space prize that was won in 2004 by the SpaceShipOne rocket team. Now she's a partner in Prodea, the family's venture capital company, which is working with the Russians to develop a new suborbital spaceship for tourist flights.
Ansari, who turned 40 on Tuesday and has described herself as a "liberal Muslim," says she has wanted to travel to outer space ever since she was a girl growing up in Iran. This year, she went through Russian cosmonaut training as a backup to Japanese millionaire Daisuke Enomoto, as part of a deal brokered by Virginia-based Space Adventures .
When the Russians removed Enomoto from the crew for this month's Soyuz flight, due to medical reasons , Ansari found herself in a position to realize her dream of spaceflight much sooner than she expected.
That forced her to make adjustments to her flight plan — and the Russians had to adjust as well. For this flight, the Soyuz's spartan space toilet is equipped with a wider urinal attachment, designed with a woman in mind. (In the past, women cosmonauts reportedly had to use an absorbent pad instead.)
Ansari discussed her space aspirations, the toilet angle and much more on Monday, during a telephone call from her quarters at the Baikonur launch site in Kazakhstan. Here's an abridged version of the interview:
MSNBC.com: You've said that you hope to play a role as a "space ambassador" during this flight. Could you explain that role?
Ansari: The most important part of my role as an ambassador is to educate everyone about space and the importance of space, and space exploration and space sciences. One way I imagine doing this through my trip is by recording every second of my experiences, either through video, pictures or audio — describing my emotions, my activities, my feelings, what I see, what I hear, encompassing all aspects of my experience — and then trying to share that upon my return with as many people as possible. Through this I want to bring awareness to existing activities in space, existing sciences ... and also to share the experience as an individual so people know how it would feel to actually fly to space.
Q: And the aim would be to encourage people to play a role in settling that space frontier?
A: Absolutely. I think it's essential for our species to pay more attention and focus more on advancing our technologies regarding using the resources in space to solve existing problems on Earth, and also to be able to advance our capabilities in space travel so in case our planet does not stay a suitable place to live on, that we will have alternatives. I'm not talking about my lifetime. I'm talking about the long future ahead of us, for our children's children, and their children. But it's something that we have to start right now. There are a lot of issues we need to overcome if we want to be able to travel beyond our solar system, and maybe travel through the galaxy in the long future.
Q: Could you talk about the science program that you're planning? What are the research projects that you're most looking forward to?
A: Well, I was trying to craft some specific projects that I would do when I traveled, thinking that this was not going to happen for one or two years. So the things that I was hoping to do, none of them I was able to actually do for this trip because I only had a short window. There are a lot of certification processes that have to take place before I can take anything up there with me.
Slideshow: Month in space: Future frontiers So what I decided to do was to participate in some ongoing programs that the European Space Agency and the Russian Space Agency and NASA are doing. Some of them have to do, for example, with the effects of zero gravity and being in space on lower back pain. A lot of astronauts and cosmonauts suffer from the symptoms of lower back pain when they travel in space. So there's a study that they're doing to figure out when it happens, why it happens and to come up with methods of preventing it. I'm participating in that, and also in studies into how microbes are spread on the space station.
And I'm doing some video of specific experiments that I will use to demonstrate laws of physics, laws of motion — different things that are not easy to demonstrate on Earth, but can be demonstrated in the zero-gravity environment. I'll use those tapes for educational purposes at different schools.
Q: It's interesting that you were so closely involved with the X Prize. Can you compare or contrast what the X Prize tried to do for suborbital flight with what the Russians and NASA are doing for orbital flight?
A: Well, the X Prize started with suborbital, but even from the start we had a larger vision in mind. We wanted to make sure that the challenges we offer in the form of competition were in steps that were achievable, so we have continuity. The first step was the suborbital competition. But our mission is to keep that going, and eventually get to orbital missions, maybe lunar missions and beyond.
So with that vision in mind, I feel that the experience I'm gaining by taking this trip will be very helpful for understanding what it takes for someone who's not a professional astronaut or cosmonaut to prepare for an orbital flight. What types of training are necessary? What are some of the activities that people may have to be trained for and be aware of before taking this kind of trip?
Doing an orbital flight is very different from being on a suborbital flight, because the duration is longer, and the effects of weightlessness are much more pronounced. The G-forces that you experience during re-entry are very different. My experience so far, and my experience from this flight, will help me make sure that we have a good plan for orbital flights for the general public and nonprofessional astronauts.
Q: Can you provide a status report on how far along Prodea has gotten with the development of the new suborbital spaceship?
A: We are working with a couple of the designers of suborbital vehicles and have discussed opportunities for different spaceports around the world. As you know, Virgin Galactic has started working with designer Burt Rutan to build "SpaceShipTwo," and they're working with New Mexico to offer a spaceport in the U.S. So we are focusing on offering the same types of flights in other locations outside the U.S. Basically, I'm looking forward to seeing more competition in this area, because I believe with more competition, we'll have better pricing and more people will fly. Ultimately, my family's vision is to allow more and more people to experience space travel.
Q: Is there any time frame for starting service?
A: I think the next two to three years will be when we see a lot of activity in suborbital flights being commercially available and actually flying people.
Q: And that time frame would apply to your venture as well?
A: It's something that is still in the early stages. It's hard for me to pinpoint a date for it. It's certainly what we are shooting for, but it's not in a state that I can say concretely that would be the date.
Q: There have been some news reports that the Russians had to make changes in the Soyuz accommodations because of your status as a woman. Do you have any funny stories to tell about that?
A: Well, the only modification that I'm aware of is the modification to the toilet they had to make. The toilet is not a very convenient contraption to use to start with, but there is a funnel at the top of it that people use for urination. And in addition to the funnel, they needed to have another female adapter for the top of the toilet system. That's the only thing I'm aware of, unless there's something else I'm not privy to.
Q: Of course, your status as a female spaceflight participant is what's putting you in the history books. But how do you view that? Is this a giant leap for women, or just a small step for space tourism and personal spaceflight?
A: As far as the significance of being a female in the whole history of spaceflight, I don't think it's that significant from a technological point of view. There have been many women astronauts and cosmonauts who have flown to space, and we know women experience basically the same thing that men experience. So from that aspect, I don't think it's any different.
But I think the importance comes when you talk about providing an inspiration for youth, and knowing that you can be from a country far, far away — someplace where there are not a lot of opportunities, and sometimes women may not have the same opportunities that men do — yet still you can nurture your dreams and realize those dreams if you are persistent and you put your mind to it and work hard at it.
So maybe from that angle, from the e-mails I've seen and the messages I've received, it is inspirational to women all over the world. And I look forward to seeing more young women and girls getting into the science area, and especially the space sciences.
Q: You mentioned that this trip was taking place earlier than you thought it would. Can you talk about what was running through your mind when you heard that Daisuke Enomoto wouldn't be able to go, and that you would be flying in his place?
A: I remember exactly: My training classes had just ended, and it was the end of the day for me, and someone from Space Adventures called me and told me that I'd been moved up to the primary position. I thought they were just joking with me and I couldn't believe it. After asking them several times and making sure they were serious, I was extremely excited, in disbelief. I remember I wanted to scream. It was a really, really, really exciting moment for me.
But at the same time, in the back of my mind, I kept thinking about Daisuke. Through training together, we had become friends, and I knew that he was looking forward to this trip. It had been a dream for him as well. So I was extremely sad and I was worried about him, and I was trying to find out how he was. One of the first people I called, after my husband, was Daisuke, to make sure he was OK and see how he felt about it.
Fortunately, when I talked with him, he was looking forward to trying to take care of his medical concerns and planning to be on the next possible trip.
Q: It's not a life-threatening condition?
A: No, it was concerning enough that it made the trip not very safe for him. And people here are very strict about the slightest problem, because when you're in space, you don't have a doctor or a hospital next door, and you cannot just turn around and come back home. So they're very concerned that you have to be in absolutely 100 percent good health. His problem is treatable, and he has not been disqualified. His trip has just been postponed for now until he can receive proper treatment. Then he will be able to fly.
Q: Is there anything you can say about what you'll be taking up with you?
A: Sure. I'm taking a lot of little personal memorabilia. I have some prayers that are on little stones, and prayers on paper that I'm taking with me. I'm also taking a piece of SpaceShipOne, and some patches that have been flown on both of SpaceShipOne's X Prize flights, and a lot of pictures. Personal stuff from different people, and my wedding ring.
Q: What's the one thing you're looking forward to the most?
A: One of the most memorable moments for me would be — when you're in the Soyuz capsule, in the early stages of the flight, there's a nose thing that covers the window so you cannot see outside. And at a certain stage, that nose thing is jettisoned, and for the first time you can see outside. I look forward to the moment when I will actually be able to see outside the window, and see the Earth, and see how beautiful it is, like a glowing blue globe in the darkness of the sky. I think that will be the most special moment for me.
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