How one American-Iranian businesswoman paid $20m to become the world’s fourth space tourist.
Anousheh Ansari doesn't look like your typical space tourist. But then what does a space tourist look like? There have been so few - only eight space junkies have so far made it into space in exchange for millions of dollars - that it's difficult to tell. One thing you should know however is that Ansari doesn't appreciate being labelled a space ‘tourist'. "If someone goes on a mountain expedition do you call them the Everest Tourist? Space travel is a lot more than picking up a guidebook, putting your camera around your neck, buying a ticket and going there," she says.
Despite her bluster, Ansari makes her trip into space and her career in telecoms seem quite the norm. And yet, before the age of 40 she had already founded a hugely successful telecoms company, amassed a huge personal fortune and overcome endless obstacles in search of her dream to travel into space.
It's a dream that started when she was a kid growing up in Iran. "I used to look at the stars at night and try to think of all these wonderful things that could be out there. I had a whole fascination with stars that evolved into a passion for science and space," she says.
It would be some years after she first started star gazing that she would became not just the world's first female space tourist but also the first Iranian in space and the fourth in the world. Long before her lift-off, Ansari moved to the US to study engineering and after stints studying at George Mason University and George Washington University, she joined the telecommunications firm MCI.
Then in the early 1990s she persuaded her husband along with her brother-in-law Amir to quit and together the trio founded Telecom Technologies, a start up that was funded using their stock options from MCI and personal credit cards.
"We had to use our credit cards to continuously manage the cash flow; we were basically financing large carriers because they don't pay their bills on time," she laughs at the memory.
In addition to being a telecoms consultancy, Telecom Technologies developed a universal softswitch - a device that connects telephone calls from one phone line to another through software on a computer - that it sold to telcos at a time when that market was exploding.
Six years later, the firm was acquired by the US technology firm Sonus Networks for $500m and Forbes estimated Ansari's wealth at around $180m (although shortly after its sale the stock fell from $40 a share to $5 and Ansari along with others were accused of insider trading).
Four years later, still flush with cash, Ansari and the equally passionate-about-space Amir, began looking into the prospect of space travel. "When we sold the company that's when the window of opportunity presented itself for me to go after my passion for space," she says. "We started looking at what was available for out there for people like the two of us who wanted to go to space. Of course, we weren't able to apply to NASA - and even if we did and we became astronauts who knows if we would ever have got the opportunity to fly? - so we started looking at the options."
Together they made a significant donation to the X Prize Foundation, which was offering a $10,000,000 prize to the first private company to launch a reusable manned spacecraft into space twice within two weeks. "It was one of the best investments we ever made," she says.
In return, the prize was renamed the Ansari X Prize. The competition was won by Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne . Rutan then went onto join forces with Virgin Galactic's founder Richard Branson. In March, the pair sucessfully launched Virgin's first test flight into space using the VSS Enterprise, which Rutan designed and built.
Ansari is unsurprisingly one of Branson's biggest supporters. Although she refuses to comment on whether or not she is one of the 330 customers who have already signed up to travel into space with Virgin, it is the only way she is likely to experience a second trip into space. "I am one of their biggest cheerleaders and I really want to see them succeed. Hopefully I'll be one of their passengers. As part of the winning of the prize I have that option of purchasing a ticket," she says. "When Galactic is ready I would love to be able to take part," she adds.
Following her donation to the X Prize, Ansari became the back-up for the Japanese businessman Daisuke Enomoto for a flight to the International Space Station through Space Adventures, a similar company to Virgin Galactic.
She spent six months training and learning Russian at the military research and training facility, Star City in Russia. Luckily for Ansari, three weeks before Enomoto's flight was due to take off, he failed a routine medical test and Ansari took his place (in 2008 he tried to sue Space Adventures for the $21m he paid them over a two-year period). "It was an instant decision for me. I thought ‘this is it, this is my opportunity'," she says.
Although Ansari cannot contractually reveal how much she paid for the trip, she has hinted in the past that it was around $20m.
"It was an out of this world experience," she of the eight day trip. "It's like nothing here on earth, I cannot tell you it feels like this or that, it was just such a unique experience on so many different levels. It was better than anything I ever expected; it was a very unique and freeing experience. I wanted to stay up there."
While on board Ansari conducted several experiments that involved looking into the effects of microgravity on the body. She also spent time keeping a blog and making educational videos for children on the laws of physics.
Throughout her six-month training in Russia, Ansari also co-established Prodea Systems, a firm that provides end users with a platform that allows them to access information, content and broadband-based application anywhere, using any device. She is just as optimistic about Prodea's success as she was with Telecom Technologies. "My goal is for the company to be serving close to one million plus subscribers in a matter of two to three years," she says, matter-of-factly.
Ansari is also very much involved in the space industry. "I'm not talking about people going into space for fun, I'm talking about uses of space explorations both for space technology to advance as well as solve some of our problems here on earth." She cites satellite technology as one example.
Despite steps made by Branson's Galactic, which could see its first flights as early as next year, Ansari like many other space enthusiasts is critical of the US government's reluctance to open up the industry to private entrepreneurs.
Last month, president Obama announced his new space policy that involved cancelling a 2020 US moon mission and pulling funding for the rocket that was supposed to take them there. The plan has been heavily criticised by the likes of NASA and Neil Armstrong who wrote an open letter to Obama branding it "devastating."
Obama also hopes his plan will bolster support for private space companies, which Ansari says are the bedrock of America's space programmes. "I can cite example after example of how commercialising it [the space industry] and opening it to the private industry has helped the consumers and helped advanced technology. For the past 45 years space has been controlled by government agencies. Even though technology has advanced so tremendously that you can't recognise anything, you cannot say the same thing about space," she explains.
"Why is that? Because there is no competition; it's something that only space agencies are involved in. You have to bring private industry in and you have to bring in entrepreneurs. NASA can only take so much risk, the bureaucracy that this involves will prevent them from taking in a lot risk," she continues. "When you have private exploration you are willing to take more risk, try new things, new models and then you have competition which is certainly more important than anything else, it fuels innovation, the cost reduction and efficiencies."
She points to Abu Dhabi's recent acquisition of a 32 percent stake in Virgin Galactic as a small step for space technology in the Middle East. "Virgin Galactic would be the first [in this region] to bring some focus into space and the uses of space," she says.
"The region is geographically suitable for developing space technologies because when you are doing the launch a lot of air space is inhabited," she continues. "I think the governments are looking into how to provide a more innovative environment for the young people here. The region has a very young population and that's one of the most important ingredients for innovation. So giving them all the right tools, trainings and reasons for them to be innovative will probably fuel a lot of interesting adventures out of this region."
Subscribe to Arabian Business' newsletter to receive the latest breaking news and business stories in Dubai,the UAE and the GCC straight to your inbox.