A Tourist With Stars in Her Eyes

Times Staff Writer

As high-tech entrepreneur Anousheh Ansari rose to wealth and prominence after immigrating to the United States from Iran as a teenager, she never lost her childhood dream of being an astronaut. She often spoke of watching “Star Trek” as a girl in pre-revolutionary Iran, of staring at the night sky and dreaming big dreams.

Now she is preparing to see her lifelong dream come true.

Ansari signed up this year to be a space tourist at the price of about $20 million, aiming to visit the International Space Station aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. She began training in March and was second in line for the next liftoff after Japanese entrepreneur Daisuke Enomoto.

But last week, Russian space authorities said Enomoto had failed a medical examination and Ansari, 39, would blast off next month with a two-man crew, becoming the first female space tourist.


“I had to pinch myself to make sure that I’m not dreaming and it’s really happening,” Ansari said Wednesday at a news conference in Star City, a cosmonaut training center about 25 miles northeast of Moscow.

“Ever since I was a child, I always used to gaze up at the stars and wonder what’s out there in the universe, and wonder if there are others like me pondering the same question somewhere else out there,” she said. “I always was interested and fascinated by the mystery of the universe.”

Ansari said she expected the high point of her journey to be the moment when she first saw Earth as “a blue, glowing globe against the dark background of the cosmos.”

The chairwoman and cofounder of Prodea Systems Inc. is scheduled to begin a 10-day space journey Sept. 14 or 18, flying with Spanish-born U.S. astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin. She will return with the two-man crew now aboard the International Space Station.


The launch date depends on whether the U.S. shuttle Atlantis makes a visit to the space station before then. Weather permitting, the shuttle is scheduled to lift off sometime from Sept. 6 to 8, Russian officials said.

Three men have preceded Ansari into space as tourists, all on Soyuz flights.

Ansari, a U.S. citizen, immigrated in 1984 at 16 and went on to study electrical engineering and computer science at George Mason University. She and her husband, Hamid Ansari, founded Texas-based Telecom Technologies Inc. in 1993, which is where she made her fortune.

She won Working Woman magazine’s entrepreneurial excellence award in 2000 and was featured on its cover. The next year, Fortune magazine listed her among the 40 richest Americans younger than 40 who had earned their wealth. It placed her assets at $180 million.


Ansari and others in her family were the key financial backers for a prize designed to spur commercial spaceflight: The $10-million Ansari X Prize was captured by SpaceShipOne, a small rocket built by aircraft designer Burt Rutan, after it blasted into space twice in five days in 2004.

She said she supported the project partly because she wanted to buy a ticket to space once commercial trips became available.

“I’m hoping that not only my flight but the life I’ve lived so far become an inspiration for our youth anywhere in the world, especially women and girls around the world, to pursue their dream, whatever that may be,” Ansari said Wednesday.

A 1999 article in the Dallas Morning News gave some insight into Ansari’s spirit as a child. Her father was vice president of a wine company when the Iranian revolution began in 1979, and the firm was abruptly shut down.


The next year, as a seventh-grader, Ansari organized students to perform a political play similar to “Animal Farm,” satirizing Iranian religious fanatics, but school administrators banned it.

“I really got into trouble,” she recalled in 1999. “Whenever we didn’t have a teacher or a substitute, we did the play in the classroom just for students.”

At a recent appearance, Ansari wore a U.S. flag patch on one shoulder and a patch with Iranian colors on the other. She explained why at her news conference.

“I have a lot of roots in Iran and feel very close to the Iranian people and the culture of the country,” she said. “By wearing the two patches, I can demonstrate that both of the countries had something to do with making me the person I am today.”


Hamid Ansari, asked how he felt about his wife’s pending visit to space, said in an interview at Star City that it was “both exciting and nerve-wracking.”

“She always knew it was her destiny to go up there,” he said. “She didn’t know when. But she was determined to get there. This isn’t a joy ride for her. She wants to make this feasible for the public. It’s more than a 10-day trip. It’s a lifetime commitment.”

While at the International Space Station, she said, she expects to help with experiments, communicate through a ham radio, make educational videos illustrating some of the laws of physics, and take photos so she can share the experience with others.

After her journey, she expects to tour schools to promote interest in science and technology.