1 November 1995
- General (Good)
Interview with Anousheh Ansari
A Space Future exclusive
by Carol Pinchefsky
By Carol Pinchefsky

Anousheh Ansari is renowned for her success as a businesswoman, but she’s also gone where no woman has gone before: to space, as a paying customer. Ansari graciously speaks to Space Future about what she enjoyed the most out of her trip to space, the physical stresses of the journey, and why the term “space tourist” does not apply to the current visitors of the International Space Station.

What inspired you to go to space?
It’s not something that just started at a particular moment; it’s a passion that I felt in my heart a long, long time…since I was a kid. I was finally able to realize it about four weeks ago.

What was the part about your visit that you enjoyed the most?
Being on the space station and living in weightlessness was probably the best part of the trip. I really didn’t want to come back. I just wanted to stay there and enjoy it for a lot longer.

Did your perceptions of “up” and “down” change?
There’s no concept of floors, ceilings, and walls, and you can walk [on all of them]…. One pretty amazing thing was how quickly your mind can adjust: I’d be walking on…the floor and would step off into something you consider to be the ceiling, and your mind would click, switch completely. And the ceiling becomes your floor, and the floor becomes your ceiling.

Where there things you could do while weightless that you can’t do on Earth?
I would fly around like superwoman and do flips…while I was eating.

It was the most fun I ever had eating. You know how when you’re a kid they say don’t play with your food? In space, you’re supposed to play with your food! It’s tons of fun… You’re a kid again when you’re in space.

Did you experience the Overview Effect?
Fly[ing] to space and see[ing] Earth as a planet instead of a city or a country changes the way you look at things…. Instead you start looking at everything differently and from a bigger perspective. You realize that you’re part of a bigger universe, but at the same time you realize how vulnerable and fragile you are…. You just think how silly it is that people on Earth fight for small pieces of land or things that seem unimportant.

What did you enjoy the least?
I got really sick with motion sickness on the trip up. The first two days I was in the Soyuz capsule was the hardest part of the trip for me. I had a huge headache because of the fluid shifts in your body, and I had lower back pain because your spine stretches in lower gravity. And of course, the motion sickness was the worst part of it.

The first two days adjustment to being in weightlessness wasn’t fun. But right after that I felt like I always lived in space. And I was fine again.

How was the landing?
Probably the hardest part of the trip…was when the capsule hit the ground. It was painful for a few seconds--my back started hurting really bad, a burning sensation. But it only lasted for a few seconds, and it went away after that. Adjusting to being back in gravity took a little longer, also.

You performed a low back pain experiment when you were on the ISS. Can you discuss the results?
I [completed] a questionnaire every day to [describe] where the pain was, how bad it was, the intensity, the location and other types of sensations, and what things helped with relieving the pain. It was worse usually at night when you’re sleeping and floating in one position…so mornings when you woke up, the pain was much higher. Through the day when you stretched and moved around, it got better….

It [was] bad in the beginning, and then gradually when I got toward the end of the trip, seven to eight days, it was completely gone.

Did you get jetlagged?
Not really. You adjust your time…on the Soyuz [to] GMT time…. And because every ninety minutes you have a complete orbit--a sunrise and sunset--you sort of lose sense of [time]. The light doesn’t indicate day or night anymore, and you go with what your body feels. When you’re tired you sleep, and when you’re not tired, you do whatever you’re doing.

Why do you not consider yourself a “tourist”?
I don’t like the word “tourist” because to me a tourist doesn’t have to do a lot of preparation for the trip. They don’t learn how the plane works to go from one location to the next; they don’t have to learn everything there is to know about the place they’re visiting. They take their camera, buy a ticket, and go.

I didn’t just … buy the ticket and go the next day. I had to train for six months and [learn] every part of the system on the capsule, the rocket, the space station. I had to learn a new language, to interact with crew members, to do emergency practices. [I had] physical training. It took a lot of preparation. [I compare this to going] on expedition. You wouldn’t call someone who goes on an expedition a tourist, and that’s why I don’t like to be called a tourist: It undermines the effort that you have to put in.

You had to learn to interact with the crew. Can you give an example of some of the training you had?
Well, we do a lot of simulation training together…. Each one of us had our own specific tasks, depending on what system was in our vicinity that we needed to interact with, and what our tasks were in case of emergency [such as] fire, smoke, or depressurization.

Of course, being a flight participant and someone who isn’t a professional astronaut, my tasks were limited. But nevertheless there were things I had to know: how to coordinate my activities with the rest of the crew members and do it in time so that I wouldn’t jeopardize the mission.

Do you think that space tourism will become true tourism, rather than a massive undertaking, with months of preparation?
With orbital flights…the longer the training and mental and physical preparation you have to do depends on the length of the trip and how autonomous the spacecraft will be….

[Taking a] suborbital flight [is] something that’s going to happen in the near future--two to three years--and that’s something that…doesn’t require a lot of physical training [or] to be in top health, because it’s a relatively short trip. You still get the feeling of being in weightlessness even though it’s for a short period of time, and you get to see Earth from space.

I will do a suborbital flight when it’s available. It’s not commercially available yet…if you’re working with Burt Rutan, yes, you can buy tickets, but the flights are not ready to take off yet.

What do you think of Richard Branson’s efforts to launch Virgin Galactic?
I admire him for his effort. I do hope that I see more and more people entering this business. We’re certainly looking at encouraging competition, because we feel that competition is important in sustaining a growing marketplace and also in bringing the prices down. And when the prices come down, more and more people will be able to have this amazing experience.

Do you think a trip to space will always cost $20 million?
I don’t think so, but that’s why I’m hoping that we’ll have a new generation of space scientists entering this field and coming up with new propulsion systems, cost-effective ways of going to space, and safe ways of going to space. It may not happen in the near future, but maybe in 25 years from now we’ll have orbital flights. The prices will be close to $10 million and then again like everything else, as new ways of doing it will become available…the prices will come down.

Maybe it won’t happen in my lifetime…but one day…people will plan their vacations and say, “We’re going to go to [the] moon for Christmas this year.”

What made you decide to invest in the X-Prize?
We were looking for ways to go to space as civilians, and we know that there were millions of people that wanted to do the same thing. When we started talking to Peter Diamandis, to learn about the mission of the X-Prize, it sort of fell in line with our vision. We looked at it and found it the best investment for us to inspire and instigate change in space industries and to ignite interest in spaceflight for private citizens. It proved to be a very good investment with what Burt Rutan accomplished.

Will you take your knowledge of telecommunications business and apply it to a space-based business?
I’m looking into ways of using the newfound smart satellites and see how they can be used for educational purposes and scientific research, but it’s something that’s in the early stages and I’m just investigating that.

Will you go back to space?
In a heartbeat. if the opportunity arises and if it’s the right time for me, I would definitely want to go back. it’s something you get hooked on. You get addicted to being in space. I was telling my husband, “I need a space fix, soon!”
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Carol Pinchefsky 1 November 1995
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