Anousheh Ansari became the world's first female space tourist* on September 18, 2006, when she joined the crew of Expedition 14
on the International Space Station
Anousheh was born in Mashhad, Iran, on September 12, 1966. She emigrated to the United States in her teens, graduating from George Mason University with degrees in electrical engineering and computer science before simultaneously pursuing her masters' at George Washington University and working for MCI. There she met her husband-to-be, Hamid Ansari, whom she married in 1991. Anousheh, Hamid, and Hamid's brother Amir Ansari all quit their jobs at MCI in 1993 to found Telecom Technologies, Inc. Telecom started out as a software-based company, but grew rapidly in the 1990s tech boom and by 2000 was a manufacturing-and-consultancy firm employing over 200 people. That same year, the Ansaris sold Telecom, turning $50,000 of startup funds into reportedly $550 million in stock options.
Anousheh immediately knew what she wanted to do with her share. Even before she same to America, Anousheh (reportedly a big Star Trek fan) had wanted to be an astronaut. Unfortunately, the traditional paths weren't terribly open--NASA didn't seem likely to accept a female Iranian national--so Anousheh looked for other ways to support her cause. In May 2004, Anousheh and Amir jointly made a donation of several million dollars to the X Prize Foundation, transforming it overnight from a standing challenge to the space community to a minor phenomenon gathering national press coverage. In recognition of this fact, the first X Prize, won by Burt Rutan and Scaled Composites some six months later, was subsequently renamed the Ansari X Prize. (This publicity, subsequently, helped turn the "X Prize Cup" into an annual event and provided the impetus for projects such as the genomics-related Archon X Prize.)
Anousheh in Space
One might expect Anousheh Ansari, having co-founded a multi-million-dollar corporation and having helped jumpstart the American private space industry, to be at least remotely content at this point in her life. Not even close. Anousheh soon began talking with Space Adventures, Ltd., the company responsible for sending civilians like Dennis Tito and Charles Simonyi into orbit, about a possible trip to the International Space Station. After a Japanese businessman with priority over Anousheh was disqualified for medical reasons, Anousheh joined two members of the ISS' Expedition 14 crew on the next Russian rocket into space. Mission Soyuz TMA-9 launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome at 4:09 UTC on September 18, 2006. Soyuz TMA-9 docked with the International Space Station on September 20th.
In the eight days Anousheh spent on board the ISS, she conducted various experiments related to anemia and back pain, among other tests, but is best known for her extremely popular weblog. Blogging from space was not completely without precedent--previous astronauts had made periodic Internet posts in the past--but the Ansari Space Blog (http://spaceblog.xprize.org/) was on a whole new level. Ansari made updates daily, sometimes even more frequently, from when she first arrived in Baikonur for training to when she touched back down on Earth. More importantly, as the first private space explorer to blog Anousheh had a special freedom in what she could write, and, (apologies in advance) a certain down-to-earthness that the millions of people who read her blog could relate to. This is evident in her style:
So even though these guys and gals are in close quarters for six months or sometimes longer, they get along pretty well and they become lifelong friends. Up here their lives depends on how well they work together and how well they communicate… and when you have to establish such a strong bond, you cannot just cut it when you return to Earth.
It’s sort of like on Earth, if you think about it… We are all connected to each other by living on the only habitable planet in the solar system… we have no place else to go, at least not for a while… so if we don’t get along and blow up everything and create a mess of our home, well guess what? WE have to live with it…
Most veteran cosmonauts speak English and most veteran astronauts speak Russian. The funny thing I have observed sometimes is when a cosmonaut asks a question in English, his astronaut counterpart will answer in Russian. This is what I call mutual respect! If only we had more people practice it on Earth, we would have a much more peaceful place to live.
-"Close Quarters", September 25th
Anousheh Ansari became the first Iranian in space and the first female Muslim in space. Between September 18-21, Ansari was one of twelve people in space at once, the largest number since the Columbia Space Shuttle accident.
Anousheh is currently a member of the X Prize Foundation's Vision Circle, along with its Board of Trustees. She is also a co-founder of Prodea Systems, a digital entertainment company, and is active in various charities and non-profit organizations.
*It is very important to note that virtually everybody who typically falls under the "space tourist" designation, especially Anousheh Ansari, dislikes the usage of the term, as it implies that they're essentially doing nothing but paying to float around in space when most "tourists" are conducting valuable research and acting as full-fledged members of ISS research teams.
It is equally important to note, though, that a satisfactory replacement term has not yet been found. "Private space explorer" (favored by Ansari) is bulky when used repeatedly in prose, "independent researcher" (favored by Tito) is context-dependent, "spaceflight participant" is almost bureaucratically euphemistic, and so on. As the number of real 'space tourists' is bound to increase dramatically with the creation of Virgin Galactic, the need for some term to differentiate between the two groups will definitely increase. If you can think of something better, I'd love to hear it.