By Rob Finfrock
Friday morning’s general session at CJP2015 began with an inspiring Keynote address by pioneering entrepreneur Anousheh Ansari, perhaps best known to attendees as one of the founders of the original Ansari X-Prize that launched the private spaceflight industry more than a decade ago, and her own Sept. 2006 flight to the International Space Station (ISS) as a spaceflight participant.
Ansari began her presentation by describing the excitement that she – and others around the world – felt watching the U.S. and Soviet Union compete in the ‘Space Race’ of the 1960s, culminating with the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969.
“There was this hope, this promise that people would be going into space,” she said about growing up in that time. “As a young girl in Iran watching ‘Star Trek,’ I imagined I would go into space as well, and be part of the Federation of Planets, go to [Starfleet] Academy and becoming a science officer flying onboard the starship Enterprise. Of course, it didn’t happen.”
It was that feeling that led her to discuss the creation of the Ansari X-Prize, and ultimately to pay for a ride to the ISS. While those experiences formed the basis of Ansari’s presentation, they also framed a larger context regarding the importance of fulfilling your dreams (space travel being her passion from an early age) and inspiring others with the drive to pursue similarly lofty challenges.
“It’s never too late to do something you’re passionate about,” she noted. “It’s only when we are not afraid, and we take risks, that we really can accomplish greatness.”
Following her presentation, Ansari shared her thoughts about how the private space industry has developed over the past 10 years, from a group of pioneers in the Mojave Desert to seeing companies like SpaceX advance private spaceflight.
“I am very proud and happy to have been a part of it,” she said, “especially when I speak at universities. I’ve had many students tell me that the X-Prize has given them hope that they’ll be a part of the private space industry, and that it’s changed their future [career] plans. It wasn’t just me, of course; it was a large group of people [who spearheaded the X-Prize] but I am very proud to have been a part of it.”
Ansari also discussed her charitable endeavors, including her participation in the ASHOKA Foundation supporting social entrepreneurs across the globe. “I believe in the power and excitement [ASHOKA] brings to solving a problem, especially a social problem,” she noted. “They’re amazing people doing amazing work … They’re changing the [charitable] model from a person simply making a financial contribution, to having them invest in a solution.”
Promoting STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education worldwide is another one of Ansari’s passions. “A student in Iran, or India, or South Africa; to me, they’re all the same,” she added. “I think students are able to connect with me, especially female students, because they see that they don’t need to believe when someone tells them that something can’t be done. It’s been done; I’m not a superwoman, but if I could do it, you may be able to do even more.”
Lastly, Ansari described how it felt to travel onboard the storied Russian Soyuz spacecraft. “On one of my first visits to Russia, they had real-life capsules we were able to sit in,” she said. “So, I got into this very small capsule, and thought ‘wow, this is going to be my home for a while, my way into space!” My husband, though, could only say ‘wow, this is so OLD… you’re going to sit in this thing? Are you crazy?'”
Also during her training, Ansari was able to meet several people “who have been there since the beginning” of the Russian space program. “They told me amazing stories about the early days, about [first human spacefarer] Yuri Gagarin. I also met Valentina Tereshkova [the first woman to fly in space, onboard Vostok 6 in June 1963.]
“Being in the same place they trained, being trained by some of the same people who trained them… I was in heaven.”