Celebrating the first Muslimah in space, Anousheh Ansari


As a child, she dreamed of walking among the stars. Now a successful technology entrepreneur, this Iranian-American made her dream come true with a trip to outer space. By Merium Kazmi.

The world's first woman space tourist Anousheh Ansari smiles at the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, early 18 September 2006. The Russian-made Soyuz rocket left the Russian base in Kazakhstan at 0408 GMT, carrying a Soyuz TMA-9 capsule and its three passengers: Iranian-born US citizen and millionaire tourist Ansari, NASA's Michael Lopez-Alegria and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin.  AFP PHOTO / MAXIM MARMUR
Maxim Marmur/AFP

Eight years ago today, Anousheh Ansari made headlines when she became the first Muslim woman to travel to outer space. On 18 September 2006, the Iranian-American joined a three-member crew for an eight-day sojourn to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard the Russian Soyuz TMA-9 spacecraft, a few days after her 40th birthday. Anousheh had originally been invited for training to serve as a backup for Daisuke Enomoto, a private space tourist from Japan. When he was eventually disqualified on medical grounds, Anousheh was able to become part of the crew.

She joins the ranks of educated and talented Muslim women making a mark on the world, and using the experience to inspire others to do the same. Her remarkable journey captured audiences across the world and inspired young and old alike – including her fellow Iranians, who left messages of support and praise on her website as she wrote from outer space, becoming the first person to blog from the ISS.

“Hello world! I don’t know who is reading this. Maybe you are a young girl, curious to know who I am… Maybe a young man who liked my picture in the paper… Maybe someone who always dreamed about flying to space and wants to know how it feels to be close to realising this dream…”

The Soyuz TMA-9 spacecraft launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan 18 September 2006 carrying a new crew to the International Space Station. The Soyuz lifted off at 10:09 a.m. Baikonur time with Expedition 14 Commander Michael Lopez-Alegria, Soyuz Commander and Expedition Flight Engineer Mikhail Tyurin, and American businesswoman Anousheh Ansari, who will spend nine days on the station under a commercial agreement with the Russian Federal Space Agency.    AFP PHOTO/NASA/Bill Ingalls   == GETTY OUT ==
Anousheh takes off inside the Soyuz TMA-9 spacecraft in Kazakhstan. Bill Ingalls / NASA / AFP

When she was in quarantine before the launch, and for much of the duration of her stay at the ISS and afterwards, Anousheh used her blog to detail her experiences on her space journey. She wrote sporadically from 9 September to 23 October, 2006. The accolades, media attention and in some respects the resulting media scrutiny compelled her to share her experiences during this incredible journey.

“This is the first blog I have ever written. I’m usually a private person, but with what has happened in my life, I feel an obligation to share this experience with everyone out there.”

As the stories of most remarkable women go, her space journey was not without some controversy. For many in the media and public, she was a hero, a source of inspiration for those looking for strong and intelligent female role models. For others, however, she was merely an affluent Iranian-American with money to spend. According to estimates, Anousheh paid US$20 million for the opportunity to participate in space travel, which some suggest may have been better spent tackling the world’s food problems. She responded candidly to the criticism on her blog by addressing the source of her considerable means and insisting that it is her right alone to spend her hard-earned money as she sees fit.

“Where did my money come from… From hard work, an incredible amount of risk, and many sacrifices that my family and I had to make. Do we have the right to decide what to do with this hard-earned money? I would think so! Does this mean that I’m selfish and do not care about all the suffering that goes on in the world? Well, I must say that you need to get to know me better and decide for yourself.”

“I also think many people go hungry not because there is a lack of food or help from other countries but because of the lack of honest and effective systems to get the food in the hands of those hungry children.”

According to the New York Times, in the run-up to the launch, Iranian state-run media was largely jubilant of her efforts with people holding gatherings, op-eds commending her efforts and people posting supportive messages on her website and blog.

Anousheh also achieved a series of firsts on her visit to the ISS in 2006. Not only is she the first Muslim woman, but also the first Iranian and the first female “private space explorer” and “space ambassador” to do so.[i] On her website, however, she places little focus on her status as a Muslim woman. When asked how her Iranian background shaped the person she is today, her answer made no mention of her cultural background or the role that religion plays in her life.

“I’m a US citizen who was born in Iran. Both countries are part of who I am. My roots are in Iran and America has given me the opportunities that I would have never had in Iran and made it possible for me to realise my dream. In particular, my Iranian heritage instilled a focus on education and a strong work ethic into my everyday life. Both countries are part of who I am.”

In 2010 her book, My Dream of Stars: From Daughter of Iran to Space Pioneer, a memoir she wrote with author Homer Hickman, was published. It is a touching reminder of her journey from her birthplace of Mashad, Iran where she was born to Baikonur, Kazakhstan where the Soyuz TMA-9 mission to the ISS took off.

Russian "Soyuz TMA-8" space capsule lands not far from Kazakh town of Arkalyk (some 300 kms from Kazakh capital of Astana), 29 September 2006, with the world's first female space tourist Anousheh Ansari, Russian cosmonaut Pavel Vinogradov and US astronaut Geoffrey Williams on board.  AFP PHOTO/ ALEXANDER NEMENOV.
Anousheh floats back down to earth in her space capsule. Alexander Nemenov/AFP

While Anousheh dreamed as a child of the “mystery of space” and “walking amongst the stars”, a solid education is what pushed her into the telecommunications business. She holds a bachelor degree in electronics and computer engineering from George Mason University and a master’s degree in electrical engineering from George Washington University. Coupled with a strong entrepreneurial spirit, her academic background gave her the means to fulfil her dream of space travel.

So it is perhaps unsurprising to learn that she (along with her husband Hamid) established not one, but two separate technology firms over the course of their successful careers. Her voyage into space would coincide with the launch of consumer technology company Prodea System, for which she presently serves as chairman, CEO and co-founder.

Although Anousheh is touted as the “first female private space explorer and first space ambassador”, young women everywhere (including non-Muslims) admire and respect her for “dreaming and making the impossible happen”. There is nothing a hopeful public enjoys more than following in the footsteps of those who have succeeded on their own terms. That is what Anousheh has relentlessly strived to achieve. In the process, she’s inspired millions of young women to do the same.

“I don’t like to be idealised or become an icon. I’m not special, I just found that light inside me that you all have and got my strength from it. It seems like I found the key to open up your hearts and souls so now you can reach inside and gain strength from there.

What do you think of Anousheh’s journey, eight years on? Leave your comments below!

[i] Tim Receveur, ‘Iranian-Born American Is World’s First Muslim Woman in Space’, IIP Digital, 21 Sep 2006, available here

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