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Making space: Anousheh Ansari to speak in Alpine about her trip to the International Space Station.

Anousheh Ansari explores weightlessness aboard the International Space Station during Expedition 14 in 2006. During her eight days aboard the station, Ansari conducted experiments with the European Space Agency. (PHOTO COURTESY OF ANOUSHEH ANSARI)


By Julie Dockstader Heaps

“You’re an inspiration to not only Muslims and women, but to mankind. Fly high and show the world the meaning of the unconquerable human spirit.”

This comment on Anousheh Ansari’s blog just days before her history-making launch to the International Space Station in 2006 encapsulates the life and dreams of this singular woman. Before she became the first female private space explorer, she was a child of Iran in the days of the 1979 revolution, an immigrant to America who overcame cultural and language barriers to become an entrepreneur profiled in Forbes, and a philanthropist who is driven to foster the hope of today’s youth.

But if you ask her to recall the moment when the boosters on the Russian Soyuz rocket lit on Sept. 18, 2006, lifting her and two others from the launch pad in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, she will relate the dreams of a little girl sleeping on the balcony of her grandparents’ apartment in Tehran.

“I had sort of a flash back,” Ansari said during a recent telephone interview, describing that rocket blast almost nine years ago. “I was in disbelief. I was thinking, ‘How is this possible that I am sitting on top of a rocket going to space?’ And I started remembering my childhood and the balcony – looking at the stars.”

Looking up is just what Ansari hopes youth and others will do when she addresses the public Friday, June 26, in Alpine during the 2015 YPO Aviation Network’s Fly-In. She joins other aviation pioneers during this year’s Fly-In events, held annually in conjunction with Alpine Mountain Days. (See accompanying article on Virgin Galactic’s Mark “Forger” Stucky. Also see inset for times and locations of addresses by Ansari and Stucky.)

For Ansari, looking skyward – and beyond — elevates mankind.

“Looking at the stars, it seemed to me there were millions and millions of them out there,” she said of her eight days in space. “I described it like diamond dust, just all over the place. You start thinking how big our universe is. You are humbled by how small and insignificant we are in the grand scheme of things. It made me look at the world differently in terms of what my relationship with my family is and my environment and how I spend my time and my life.”

Today, that little girl on the balcony whose favorite TV show was Star Trek – and whose hero was Spock, the science officer, of course– now travels the world sharing a story that began in what was anciently known as Persia.

Anousheh Raissyan Ansari, now 48, was born in Mashhad, Iran, in the last years of the reign of the Shah. In the wake of the Iranian revolution, her school, where she spoke French, Farsi and Arabic, was closed, and she and her beloved younger sister, Atousa, had to travel across the city in the early morning hours to attend another school.

It was on one such dark morning that Ansari had an epiphany. The two girls had left their cockroach-infested apartment and made their way to the bus stop when a pack of wild dogs began snarling at them. Terrified, Atousa clung to her older sister, who screamed for help. A neighbor came to their aid, and the girls jumped on the bus, their hearts racing.

In speaking with The Independent, Ansari described the fear that day as “hard to describe. It’s like you are being crushed and there is nothing you can do.”

In her memoir, Ansari wrote that while on the bus, “A certain steady resolve began to fill my heart and I felt strong…. I decided at that moment to always fight without fear.”

Fear is common in life, she explained, but “in our lives, when we take the steps to overcome fear, then the universe finds a way to help us.”

For that young woman, help came in the form of relatives in America, where she immigrated in 1984 at age 17. Determined to take advantage of the freedoms of her adopted country, she studied math and science while learning English, eventually earning a bachelor’s degree in electronics and computer engineering from George Mason University and a master’s degree in electrical engineering from George Washington University. (Today, Ansari is working toward a master’s degree in astronomy from Swinburne University.)

While working at MCI Communications, she met Hamid Ansari, and they married in 1991. Together with Hamid’s brother, Amir, they founded Telecom Technologies in 1993, which was acquired by Sonus Networks in 2001.

But her success in the telecommunications industry did not dim her dream of the stars. “I remember in 1998, Dennis Tito was announced to fly into space with the Russian mission.”

Thus, with the proceeds from the sale of TTI, the Ansaris joined with the X Prize Foundation to create the Ansari X Prize, a $10 million cash award for the first non-governmental organization to launch a reusable manned spacecraft into space twice in two weeks – a feat accomplished in 2004 by aerospace designer Burt Rutan.

That spacecraft, SpaceShipOne, now hangs in the Smithsonian next to the Spirit of St. Louis. (The success of SpaceShipOne led to Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo. See accompanying article.)

But the X Prize wasn’t enough for Ansari. She still could only gaze at the stars through a telescope. Then came a chance meeting with the head of Space Adventures, which contracts with the Russian Space Agency to send private space explorers to the International Space Station.

“The rest is history,” Ansari said. With a Russian cosmonaut and an American astronaut, Ansari lifted off with Expedition 14 for the space station.

But don’t call Ansari a “space tourist” with an image of “someone with a camera around their neck and a ticket in their hand,” she said during a interview in the days before the launch. She trained for six months at “Star City” in Russia in the same program as cosmonauts and astronauts and conducted experiments on the station with the European Space Agency.

Today, Ansari studies astronomy while serving as chief executive officer of Prodea Systems, which she co-founded with her husband. She also serves with the X Prize Vision Circle, along with many philanthropic organizations.

When she comes to Alpine, she hopes the youth, especially, will pay attention. “I’m hoping that I provide them with a story that tells them there is no limit to what we can dream of and imagine and that nothing can stop us from achieving them.

“I had a dream that from most standards would be impossible to achieve yet despite all of that I was able to achieve it.”

Foremost, Ansari urges listeners to face their fears. “Living in fear is like locking ourselves in a dark room where the room is in this beautiful world that is bright and full of color. All we need to do is have the courage to open that door and step out.

“Have your compass set. You will get to your destination.”

Sources for this article included Ansari’s memoir, “My Dream of Stars” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010); Sept. 15, 2006, interview with; Prodea Systems media information;

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