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Meet the Women Driving the Space Tourism Boom

One is a wealthy and influential promoter of private space travel; the other mortgaged her home to buy a ticket into orbit. Both are making space tourism possible.
Anousheh Ansari. Image: NASA / Wikimedia

By early next year, space could be a popular tourism destination. But who is going to ride the rocket? Would you?

Virgin Galactic says they are close to launching their suborbital trips, a plan that was announced ten years ago, then delayed, and delayed again.

At $250,000 a pop, Virgin Galactic tickets are not quite as affordable as going to Disneyland but they are far cheaper than the tens of millions charged by Space Adventures, which famously made billionaire Dennis Tito the first space tourist to visit the International Space Station in 2001.

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For this newer, cheaper version of amateur space travel with Virgin Galactic, 800 people have at least paid a deposit and signed up to go. Look down the passenger manifest and you'll see they are not all movie stars and millionaire moguls.

There's Lina Borozdina, who took a second mortgage out on her home to buy the ticket back in 2004. We recently interviewed her for the WNYC podcast New Tech City to try and understand her hunt for meaning through space travel and how that ticket has been a best friend over the years.

"One of the biggest reasons I put the money up," Borozdina said, "I could have waited until it becomes cheap and affordable. I did it because when there is a dream and if no one puts the money behind it, it's going to stay a dream."

Her version of this dream began as a kid. Literally.

"My father use to tuck me into bed and tell me bedtime stories," she said. "That me and my cousin Inga would sneak up the space shuttle in the middle of the night. We would stowaway in some box. In the morning the spaceship would launch into space and when we reach zero gravity, the box, where apparently the space food was stored, would float out with the two of us. After that we'd go on and have different space adventures."

She chose science as her profession, specifically biochemistry, but always stayed fascinated with space.

She immigrated to America, almost by accident. She happened to be in the US when the Soviet Union collapsed. Her passport was for a place that no longer existed, so she applied for political asylum and started learning English, took a job washing dishes at a drug company until she could put her education to use. All this is to say, she's doing OK now, financially, but it hasn't been easy. And she's certainly not rich. But she's spending a huge chunk of her wealth on a ticket to space.

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Upper-middle class dreamers like Lina might be the jet fuel that makes space travel viable. Tourism is paying for test flights.

The space industry, long the purview of governments, has changed. The wild ambitious ideas are hatching inside private companies: space balloons, space elevators and space hotels are all in some form of inception. Last month, NASA announced a $6.8 billion contract with Boeing and the company SpaceX to develop the next space shuttles, due in 2017. Since the end of the US shuttle program in 2011, NASA can't send people to space. American astronauts have to hitch a ride with the Russians paying millions of dollars per seat—just like the first space tourists.

Anousheh Ansari is one of them. She is the fourth space tourist and only woman to go. Ansari grew up in Tehran and like Borozdina, also obsessed with space. She moved with her family to the United States at 17. She went on to get a degree in electrical engineering and started a telecommunications company with her husband and brother-in-law. She never lost her interest in space. (Do you see a profile starting to form here?)

"I thought about space all the time, it was sort of woven into my everyday life," Ansari said. "All our conference rooms were named after stars and galaxies. I made our entire management dress in Star Wars costume for all-hands meetings."

The Ansaris ended up selling their company, making hundreds of millions of dollars, and freeing up time (and money) for Anousheh to figure out how she was going to get to space. It's a brave story of training with the Cosmonauts in Moscow through a particularly cold Russian winter. And it was all worth it.

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"Within about nineteen, twenty minutes into the flight, you start to feeling like you are lifting off your chair even though you are strapped in with your seatbelt, you can just feel that you are becoming weightless," Ansari said. "One of my crewmates took off his gloves and let the gloves sort of spin in the air. And I'm like, 'Oh my god, I can't believe I'm in space.'"

Virgin Galactic looks set to be first out the space tourism gate due to some help from Ansari. In 2004, the Ansaris joined up with X Prize and launched the Ansari X Prize. They put up a $10 million prize to the first privately funded spaceship that could reach the edge of space (62 miles up) twice, within two weeks. Branson teamed up with the designer of the winner, SpaceShipOne to build the spaceship that Virgin Galactic (aptly named SpaceShipTwo) will use to take passengers up.

Test flights are going well with Virgin Galactic tweeting last week that spaceflight is getting "closer."

But Richard Branson had hoped to get Virgin Galactic up and running by 2007. As recently as last month he said he was hoping to get people in space by Christmas.

"I've been waiting for this my whole lifetime," Borozdina said. "I got to tell you if it's going to take another two years I'll wait."

This story was written by Motherboard's friends at New Tech City, the WYNC show that chronicles how technology impacts our daily lives. Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or Stitcher or via RSS