In 1984, Anousheh Ansari was a teenager with a lifelong dream to explore space who had just immigrated to the United States from Iran. As a 16-year-old who did not speak English, she felt there was no path for her to become a NASA astronaut. But today, Ansari is a highly successful Texas-based engineer and businesswoman—and the first female private space explorer. She's also the first woman to self-fund a trip to space, culminating in her trip to the International Space Station with the Russian space program in 2006.
Broadly spoke with Ansari, who's also the first astronaut of Iranian descent, about her journey around Earth and the future of space exploration.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
BROADLY: What made you want to go to space in the first place?
ANOUSHEH ANSARI: It has been a childhood dream of mine. I fell in love with stars and thinking about how I can actually go up there and experience space for myself. I always thought, I didn't know how, but that I would become an astronaut. At the time, I believed in it and eventually by a lot of luck and hard work, I made it come true.
Did you ever think you would be the first civilian woman to enter space?
I had no idea. And to be honest, if I was the 100th civilian woman to go to space, I would have gone and enjoyed it the same way. For me, it wasn't about being the first for anything but more about the actual experience in doing what I did.
What training was required to visit the International Space Station?
Training is pretty rigorous. I spent almost a year training, most of it in Russia. I went through a lot of physical training, classroom training, to learn how to board the capsule, the space station, how the space crews operate, what they do, how to repair things if there is a failure. There was also a lot of survival training. I also had to learn Russian. Training was everyday from 7 AM to 7 PM, going through different classes, interactions, and simulations.
How did you end up self-funding your trip?
I had this dream, but my life and career took a different path. When I came to the US, I didn't speak English. I wasn't even a US citizen. Here I was at 16 years old and I didn't see a path to NASA. I was born in Iran and at that time, the relations [between the US] and Iran weren't good at all. I took a path towards engineering and computer science which ended up being the right career path for me. That led me to be a successful engineer and then a successful entrepreneur through building and selling a company.
After that, I was then able to start focusing on what I wanted to do, which is going to space. Between the two of my companies—the one that I am on now and the previous one—I took some time off to focus on my passions and dreams, which I kept alive during the entire time. The first step was actually [the] funding of a bill, that sort of opened up the whole private space industry which is now a thriving $100 billion plus industry. I am very proud of being part of that. From there, my involvement with the space community allowed me to go and fly and participate in the Russian space program.
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What was your experience immigrating to the US?
The Iranian Revolution happened in 1979. I immigrated after that in 1984, during the [Iranian] war with Iraq. So I saw my whole world change as a child and you know, it was good to be able to come to a country [where] I felt I was getting so many opportunities. I was so grateful for all the incredible opportunities to study. I was amazed I was getting so many different ways to pay for my school: There was financial aid, student loans, scholarships. It was great to live somewhere where I was getting so much support and, more than anything else, learning about my rights—about how I can do basically anything I enact my mind to.
Do you think today's immigrants are finding the same support that you did?
People talk about the land of opportunity. I lived that life here, and I hope that this country stays this way in the future. I hope that new immigrants will be allowed to come here in the first place. And also that they will be given the same opportunities. If you look around at this country, it was built on the back[s] of a lot of people that immigrated here. They are all contributing in a positive way to society and the communities that they are part of.
What were you hoping to gain from your personal trip to space?
More than anything else, it was to fulfill a dream. It's like someone who wants to climb Mt. Everest and their whole life that's their dream. This is something I felt like my life wouldn't be complete without. I think that having the experience gave me answers: Why am I here? What is my goal in the universe? Why am I here on planet Earth? And I've always been fascinated by cosmology and how the universe was formed and where it is going. Being in space gave me a better appreciation and understanding.
What was the most surprising part of your experience?
You train so much and the details of the trip are so much practice and simulation. So I can't say there was any surprises except that it was better than anything I'd ever imagined. I thought I was prepared for it mentally but I was in awe and in shock at how beautiful our world is. That was a pleasant experience and I remember, the first moment I saw Earth, I felt this deep emotional feeling of life emulating from it. It's a planet that is alive; it has warmth and energy and it made me cry and laugh at the same time. It was such a crazy mixed emotion.
What's the importance of space programs, and do you feel worried about their future?
Up until recent years, when they wanted to cut budgets, the space program would get a lot of cuts because people don't understand how important they are. A lot of what I do is try to advocate and promote why space is important, why the research is important for the future of humanity. Being able to go to space is not just about actually going to space. It's about learning about ourselves, the origin of life, the origin of our planet, and understanding our environment and planet better. And being able to preserve it. I think sometimes that scientific proof and data is not desired by the new administration. When you have pictures of the ice melting from the satellites in space. That is not something we can dispute. I hope that the same thing that happened to the EPA doesn't happen to the space program.
Do you consider yourself a role model?
I hope to be. I consider myself a storyteller and I know that stories have impacts. I tell people the story of my life and I let them use whatever part of my life resonates with them. Either to help make a difficult decision or to get through a hard situation. It always helps when you talk to someone who has experienced something similar to you or something extraordinary that will inspire you. I try to use my life story to try to let people pick whatever they want to get out of this.