Iranian-American engineer Anousheh Ansari made international headlines in September 2006 when she became the first female private space explorer, the first astronaut of Iranian descent, and the first Muslim woman ever to travel to outer space.

Space pioneer Anousheh Ansari. Photograph © Corrie Parsonson

Just days after her 40th birthday, Anousheh Ansari (who is now the chairwoman and CEO of the digital technology company Prodea Systems) joined a three-member crew for 10 days in space aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Her mission included an eight-day stay on board the International Space Station (ISS), a trip that cost her an estimated $20 million. Training in Russia as a backup for a Japanese businessman, she replaced him on the space flight following his disqualification for medical reasons.

Born in Mashhad, Iran in 1966, Ansari grew up in Tehran before moving to the United States as a teenager in 1984. She completed her university education while working full-time at MCI Communications, where she met her husband Hamid Ansari. Together, they co-founded Telecom Technologies, Inc. in 1993, along with her brother-in-law, Amir Ansari. In 2000, the company was acquired by Sonus Networks, Inc. for an estimated $550 million. The trio later co-founded Prodea Systems, Inc.

Anousheh Ansari was a star speaker at an Iranian women’s leadership conference in London last weekend, co-hosted by the Iranian-American Women Foundation and the Persia Educational Foundation. Kayhan Life sat down with her for a conversation about space, its impact on her life, and her next big challenges.

What is the story of your attraction to space? It’s unusual for an Iranian girl to dream of going there.

It started when I was very young. During summer nights in Iran, we would sleep outside. I would gaze at the night skies and at the stars for long periods of time, and let my imagination take flight. I would imagine other beings out there, and try to think of what was really out there beyond those shiny objects that I saw, and how they got to be there. Playing with this field of imagination and wanting to be up there is really what attracted me to space.

I wanted to be an astronaut, to fly to space, to experience it, and I thought I would find the answer to all my questions if I could just go there and see with my own eyes. That is what attracted me to math and science and engineering.

The way I knew space was through “Star Trek.” I watched “Star Trek” dubbed in Farsi, and I thought that was what the space program was like – that when I grew up, I would go and apply to Starfleet Academy and become an astronaut, and there would be lots of star ships, and I would get on board one, and I’d do research, and it would be wonderful. I really was that ignorant about everything.

Can you describe the space mission, and how you ended up on that spaceship?

Space traveler Anousheh Ansari with her husband Hamid.

My journey to becoming an astronaut was a very long and winding road. I just knew I wanted to go space – I didn’t know how I would do it, or where I would be able to make that dream come true.

My life took me to the U.S., where I studied engineering, and I ended up working in the tech sector and [eventually] starting my company with my husband. After I sold my first company, I got an opportunity to take some time off and try to figure out how I was going to go about making my dream come true.

I got involved with an organisation called the XPRIZE Foundation, which was in its very early days. I helped launch this prize that became sort of the instigator for a whole industry, a $100-billion-plus industry in new space technology, for companies that want to monetize and build businesses around going to space, servicing space, or researching space. Through that, I got to meet the people who arranged trips with the Russian space program, and got an offer to go and fly as part of that program. I spent about a year in Star City where all the [cosmonauts] train, and trained with the rest of them, and was able to fly in 2006.

What it was like up there?

It’s a life-changing experience that really puts everything in perspective for you: not only the world and the fragility of our planet, but also your relationship to it and your role in it. On the one hand, it was empowering because I felt part of a bigger universe. I felt part of something much bigger than myself and my little world, and it was humbling.

[On the other hand,] when I looked at our planet, I saw it as really a home for all of us, without these dividing lines we see on maps. That allowed me to think about how in my role, I could do something more global. Through building my next company and through a lot of the projects I do, I focus on how I can have a global impact, versus just focusing on a small problem to solve.

What did you actually learn on board, and did the reality match your dreams?

The experience itself was better than anything I ever imagined. It also taught me that the journey is as important, if not more important, than the destination. While the destination was incredible and I will forever remember it, the friendships that I made and the way of life that I learned through my training are things that I continue to practice.

The training must have been very challenging.

Being in a military environment, all the little niceties of everyday life went out the window. I was in a Russian military base, so hot water was a blessing, if I had it to take a shower. I learned that a lot of the things that you think you must have and need, you can do without . . . and survive. The ‘noise’ basically goes away, and you get to appreciate what’s really important in life.

I love nature, so I got to spend a lot of time outside, and appreciate the changes in our environment better. All of those experiences have stayed with me. I now try, if even for five minutes, to step out for some fresh air and look up into the night skies, or look around me at the trees, and feel the changes in the seasons. I’m told that I’m more zen now than I was before.

What was it like out there, in terms of food, sleep?

A normal life on board the space station is very organized, because you get a schedule that tells you what you’re doing. You start off with a call with ground control that goes over your schedule. You mostly spend your time doing different experiments. If you’re a full-time astronaut with one of the space agencies, you have tasks to do, repairs and maintenance of the space station. So you take care of your environment. Then you do your work, which usually involves a lot of research.

There are also opportunities to do social calls, and talk to schools and students. I did a lot of that while I was on the space station, because I wanted to get a lot of young girls interested in math and science and get them more involved in technology.

When you’re on the space station, you basically make an orbit every 90 minutes, so you see the sun rise and the sun set every 90 minutes. That means that you don’t go by the light outside to know what time it is. You have a schedule based on the clock that’s inside the space station.

There’s no refrigeration. So the food that you eat is dehydrated or canned, or like a special military ration: you get to add water to it or heat it up.

The best time on the station was at night when you were done with all your work and everyone gathered in one location. We would float around our little station having a meal, and share stories of our lives, families, experiences, aspirations, work. I would ask a lot of questions about the other astronauts’ previous experiences in flights, what were their most memorable moments. I learned so much.

It was a very international community getting together over dinner, people from different backgrounds, different religions, different languages. At that moment, we were all just human beings orbiting Earth. On one of the nights, over a meal, we started designing the next space station and [discussing] all the things that we wanted to change. We talked about how it would feel to have schools in space, and to have children share the experience while they were studying our planet.

Can you describe your childhood in Iran?

I was born in Mashhad, and grew up there until I was about five years old. Eventually we moved to Tehran, and that’s where we lived until I was about 16. I left Iran at that time. I went to a French Catholic school in Tehran called Jeanne d’Arc and studied French. So when I came to the U.S., I didn’t speak a word of English. That was a whole new challenge for me. But I loved studying and learning a new language, and learning about other parts of the world. The school opened up a whole new world to me, and allowed me to think bigger than my small community.

My parents were from liberal arts backgrounds. I was the first engineer in my close family, and I think I perhaps inspired my sister who studied engineering. After that, we had other engineers in the family.

What did you study at university?

I studied electrical engineering and computer science, I got a masters in that field, and that’s where my career has been: building technology and software. But on the side, I was always enamored with astrophysics. So I would take classes from time to time, and study books about anything related to it, especially cosmology – understanding the origin of our universe.

Can you describe your first company, which you sold very successfully? What did it do?

My first experience in starting a company was in consulting. My husband and I started the company and worked with clients to help them design services and things that could allow them to expand their offerings and generate more revenue. Soon, we realized that a lot of times when we’d give them an idea, and they loved the idea, it was hard for them to implement it. So the next phase of the company was actually starting to develop some of those products and write the software for them.

We realized that if were solving one company’s problem, other companies probably had similar issues. So we started looking at building products, and built a lot of different products, always geared towards the telecom industry. We developed several product lines, and sold that company in 2000.

I took some time off until 2006, when we launched Prodea. At Prodea, we are focused on the Internet of things.

Can you explain what is meant by the Internet of things?

The Internet of things (IoT) stems from the idea that you can make a lot of things that you use on a daily basis smarter by adding technology to them, so they can actually interact with you, sense things that are happening, collect information, and interact and understand this data. You can then make decisions better, operate things more efficiently, and use the data to provide specific services.

To give you an example, someone with diabetes takes the measurement of their glucose level everyday. Usually, they have to remember to write this down, and every six months when they go to see their doctor, they’re taking a piece of paper that has these numbers on it. In reality what happens is that nobody writes it down immediately, they do it just before going to the doctor. So it’s very inaccurate data, and the doctor is prescribing medication based on inaccurate data.

What we do in the world of IoT is read the data as it happens, correlate it with other variables like your weight, your blood pressure, your movements and other habits around the house, and collect all of that data and send it to your doctor. Now, over time, doctors can better understand what certain trends mean, for instance if you’re gaining weight and your glucose is spiking. So instead of having to wait and see you in six months, they see these trends over maybe two or three weeks, and can send you a message saying ‘it looks like you’re not watching what you’re eating, do you want to have a call?’ Or they can send you a video of healthy habits. So it’s all about collecting and analysing data, interacting at the point of service, and being able to deliver something of value to the individual.

What’s the next big challenge for you?

One of the areas that I’m focusing on outside of the business is to look at how I can help young people across the globe have a more active voice in policy-making. This has become very important to me. As adults, we focus on our differences a lot, and that prevents us from collaborating.

By being connected through the world of technology, young people have found a common language that they speak, and can relate to each other on a different level. If we can give them a seat at the table, they can influence policies in a positive way and create a different future for themselves and for their children. So I’m working with a lot of organizations to try to build that platform and help them gain that seat at the table.

What is your connection with Iran these days?

I don’t have any direct connection; I haven’t been back since I left. I’m always proud of my heritage. I care a lot for people in Iran, and especially women in Iran, who through a lot of challenges and struggles demonstrate that they’re very powerful in accomplishing a lot of firsts and a lot of things that would be easy for people outside of Iran.

Entrepreneurship is high amongst Iranian women. They help each other a lot through the struggles that they face. So I try to stay connected with a lot of young entrepreneurs in Iran and help them in ways I can.