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Anousheh Ansari: A Beacon of Inspiration Raj Lingam

Anousheh Ansari is a towering testament to the power of determination, courage, and the relentless pursuit of one's dreams. I was lucky to have met her in a small group at a conference in Los Angeles, California, where she shared the inspiring story of her extraordinary journey into space.  She offered a glimpse into an astronaut's life and her vision of future space exploration.

Breaking Barriers and Orbiting Earth

As the first Muslim woman to embrace the stars, Ansari's expedition to the International Space Station (ISS) was more than a personal achievement; it was a milestone for women and girls everywhere, especially those from conservative backgrounds who dared to dream. It took her two days to get to the International Space Station (ISS) - 19 minutes to get to the required orbit, and two days to slow down and dock. The ISS orbits around the earth every 90 minutes at approximately 250 miles above the earth's surface, allowing her to see multiple sunrises and sunsets in 24 hours. From the space station’s main port, the Earth appears big and flat as the view is not wide enough to see the edges or curvature of the planet. However, she could see the earth's curvature from the side ports. She could see pyramids, the Cape of Good Hope (the hook), Italy, and other landmarks with distinct features. She could not see the Great Wall of China as it was cloudy whenever they passed over that region. The ISS had onboard displays showing the orbit trajectory and the corresponding Earth's landmarks.

The Rigors and Rewards

Anousheh spent six months in Russia training hard for her mission.  She had to learn “Space Station Russian” enough to have a conversation with her fellow astronauts and to be able to order food during training.  Each astronaut got personalized care, from hair shampoo to the food they eat, catered by a chef according to their dietary preferences.  A few days before the launch, she saw a group of women (who looked like babushkas) stitching a long black cloth by hand and later found out that it was the heat shield for the Soyuz module.  On the re-entry, when she saw the black material flying off the module, she wondered if the stitching was not good enough and was reassured by her team lead that it was normal and as expected.  They underwent a cleansing process two days before the launch (like preparing for a colonoscopy).  The Russian space suites were bulky and uncomfortable with a cooling system inside.   They had to wear a Maximum Absorbency Garment (MAG, like a diaper) for the first two days until they reached the ISS, which had a toilet. 

Communication aboard the ISS was restricted to English or Russian.  During her stay, Anousheh once had a call with her husband, and when they attempted to converse in Persian, they were instructed to continue in English. Her daily routine included a minimum of two hours of exercise and a diet of packaged meals, which helped her maintain her muscle mass and weight in space. She dedicated four hours to assigned scientific experiments daily and used the rest of the time to conduct personal research and writing. Her insightful blogs, written while orbiting Earth, were published upon her return and gained widespread acclaim. This practice of sharing daily experiences has become a tradition for all ISS astronauts, inspired by her successful engagement with readers.

After spending 11 days on the ISS, she embarked on her return to Earth. The re-entry was rapid: following undocking, the module orbited Earth twice, aligned itself properly, and entered Earth's atmosphere. That day, fatigue overwhelmed her, and she struggled to stay awake, prompting her team lead to check on her well-being frequently. Three parachutes controlled the descent, deployed in stages to decelerate the spacecraft as it plunged toward Earth. The initial parachutes opened at high altitudes, while the final one was released closer to the ground. Despite the turbulence of landing, akin to the impact of a car crash, their capsule, fortunately, landed upright—a favorable position that avoids the complexities of overturning it in water. Upon exit, the effects of gravity were disorienting; she found it difficult to walk straight and felt an extraordinary heaviness when seated as if sinking into the ground. Lifting her legs became strenuous, and the simplest movements required a herculean effort for the following days as she reacclimated to life on solid ground.

A Voice from the Stars: Advocating for Space and Equality

Anousheh is an avid advocate for commercial space initiatives. She believes these programs are the key to making space travel more affordable and frequent for a broader audience. While a trip with SpaceX currently costs about $39 million—significantly less than the $70-$80 million Soyuz ticket—the expense remains high. Nevertheless, Anousheh predicts that prices will decrease significantly in the coming years. Interestingly, once skeptical of commercial ventures in space, her team leader has since embraced the sector, taking charge of a private company's inaugural space flight. Anousheh herself is eager to return to space and jokingly acknowledges that she might need to venture back into entrepreneurship, as her current role as CEO of the nonprofit XPrize does not pay enough for another spaceflight.

Anousheh is optimistic about humanity's return to the moon, bolstered by NASA's Artemis program and other international ventures. She foresees success in these lunar landings by commercial entities and government-run missions. A major challenge, however, will be the establishment of fair practices for using lunar resources. For instance, if a country like China first reaches the moon's South Pole and controls its water sources, it could potentially limit access to other nations. This scenario underlines the importance of cooperation in space, akin to the collaborative environment aboard the ISS, where astronauts must coexist peacefully regardless of personal differences, mirroring the harmony required here on Earth. Anousheh also expresses her admiration for the advances made by the Chinese space program.

Anousheh is confident we will begin commercial flights to Mars within a few years. She believes these initial voyages will be one-way due to the high risks involved. The journey to Mars can take six to nine months, a duration that poses significant challenges to human health due to extended weightlessness. She mentioned that artificial gravity might be utilized in the future to mitigate these effects. The early missions will rely on innovative but untested technology, carrying inherent dangers. Nonetheless, Anousheh's passion for exploration is such that she would seize the chance to go, even knowing it might be a one-way trip. Prior to her own spaceflight, she prepared for the risks by writing farewell letters to her family, a sobering reminder of the dangers astronauts accept. Answering a question, she said that while there are no protocols for self-euthanasia in the event of a catastrophe, the ISS is equipped with escape modules for emergency evacuations. Despite the risks, Anousheh views the future of space exploration with optimism and excitement.

A Call to Dream and Dare

Anousheh's roots are in a traditional Muslim culture, where she fostered the dream of space travel from an early age. She encourages young girls to embrace an open-minded approach to their interests and abilities, challenging the protective instincts that often discourage girls from risk-taking. Anousheh observes that while women excel in leadership and are well-equipped to run large organizations, female entrepreneurs often hesitate to undertake the risks necessary for establishing major organizations. Reflecting on her own childhood, she recalls her grandmother's concerns about her playing in the dirt or engaging in rough sports that might bruise or scratch her for fear of marring her skin. Anousheh advocates for a shift in perspective, where girls are valued for their strengths and potential and encouraged to explore and grow with the same freedom traditionally afforded to boys.

Anousheh frequently dreams of the cosmos. Even now, with a mere blink, she can clearly recall the sensation of being aboard the ISS, gazing down upon Earth. This profound experience remains dear to her, a treasured adventure she hopes to relive someday soon.

Conclusion: A Legacy of Inspiration and Innovation

Anousheh Ansari's narrative is not just about her incredible journey to space but about breaking barriers, challenging stereotypes, and paving the way for future generations. Through her experiences, we are reminded of the importance of pursuing our dreams with vigor, embracing the unknown, and the transformative power of seeing the world—and beyond—from a new perspective. As we look to the stars, let us carry forward the legacy of pioneers like Ansari, for in their stories, we find the courage to reach beyond the heavens.

P.S.  Anousheh was born in 1966 and attended George Mason and George Washington Universities.

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