January 25, 2007

 

American, Iranian Cultures Support Space Pioneer's Achievements

Anousheh Ansari credits discipline of Iranian culture, freedom in U.S. culture

Portland, Oregon -- Iran and the United States are thousands of kilometers apart, but they share the same sky.  And when Iranian and American children look up into that sky, they often share the same aspirations and hopes.

Entrepreneur and space pioneer Anousheh Ansari remembers that growing up in Tehran she loved to gaze at the stars and the deep darkness of space.  “The immense possibilities that lie in the universe have always fascinated me,” she says.  When her parents allowed it, she would sleep on the balcony of her home so she could watch the night sky.  She tried not to miss an episode of Lost in Space or Star Trek.  Even though Iran had no space program, she knew she wanted to be an astronaut.

On September 18, 2006, Ansari achieved her childhood dream when she became the first private woman astronaut in history.  Her smiling face has appeared on television and in countless magazines and newspapers.  Her space blog has received more than 50 million visits, and her reflections on her space voyage have gained attention around the world.

In a recent interview with USINFO, Ansari said, “Seeing the earth as one planet, without borders, is something I wish more people could see,” adding that if people did, “the way we run our lives and the way leaders run their countries would be much different.  We would appreciate the environment and the whole planet much more.”

ENTREPRENEURIAL SUCCESS LEADS TO REALIZATION OF DREAM

For Ansari, the path into space was never a straight line.  The efforts that led to her voyage highlight her exuberant determination and underline a remarkable life, one worthy of attention even if she never had left Earth.

Ansari's early life was beset with challenges.  At 16, Ansari found herself an immigrant to the United States, living with relatives, possessed of no personal wealth and unable to speak English.  But she had a strong aptitude for science and math and a determination to make something of it.  She learned English and earned degrees in electrical engineering and computer sciences.  She and her husband, Hamid Ansari, founded a high-tech company, and a few years later sold it for a fortune.  She won awards for her business acumen and was named by Forbes Magazine as one of the top women entrepreneurs in the United States.

Through it all, she retained her childhood ambition to travel in space.  After selling her company, she took up university studies in astrophysics and became a leader in promoting private space flight, “hoping to spark something new, a new industry.”  She and her brother-in-law made a large contribution to the $10 million X-Prize, to be given to the first company that could build a reusable spacecraft.  Renamed the Ansari X-Prize, it was awarded in 2004 to air pioneer Burt Rutan. (See related article.)

No one who speaks with her can miss the excitement in her youthful voice as she describes how, only a few days after her 40th birthday, she strapped into a Russian Soyuz spacecraft and blasted into orbit.  “The moment I could see the earth through the window” of the Soyuz craft, she said, “it made me realize that I had finally achieved my goal.” 

During her 10-day flight, she worked on the International Space Station and gathered a lifetime of experiences.  She circled the earth every 90 minutes, seeing a sunrise and sunset 16 times per day. “Time didn’t have any meaning,” she told USINFO, “until I was told that it was my last day on the station and I had to return.”

Since her return, she has been busy promoting private space flight. Her discussion of the X-Prize Cup – a group of cash-award competitions held annually -- encourages innovation in space technology. She also is looking into possible new X-Prize awards to promote private orbital or even lunar or Martian space flights.

AN AMERICAN DREAM WITH IRANIAN ROOTS

During her space flight, Ansari wore on her uniform the Iranian colors as well as an American flag, honoring the land of her birth as well as her adopted country.

Ansari reflected on what each has given her.  “I have lived the American dream,” she says. “The level of freedom and opportunity available to people in this country is amazing.”  But she adds, “My Iranian upbringing helped me be the person I am today.  A lot of the discipline, a lot of the strong character that I have, is built into the Iranian culture.”  She emphasized the importance both cultures played “in who I am and what I have achieved.”

She is very aware that since her space flight she has become a role model, which she embraces.  She hopes that others can look at the obstacles she overcame and take heart at her achievement.  “I hope,” she says, “that some young girl in some faraway country, when she dreams at night of going into space, says to herself, ‘Anousheh did it, so I can do it, too.’”

While she orbited Earth last fall, Iranian women flocked to an observatory near Tehran to watch the space station cross the arc of Iranian sky.  Just as Ansari did as a girl, looking up into the night sky and seeing her dreams, Iranian girls can now look up and know they have seen Ansari passing by, and know that they too have the power to make their dreams come true.

Ansari’s space blog is available online.

(USINFO is produced by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)





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