Anousheh Ansari is building a better world, from here to space

Anousheh Ansari
5 min read
12 April, 2024

Anousheh Ansari was born a curious child, always asking ‘why?’ But the question more suited to the history-making entrepreneur and CEO is perhaps ‘why not?’

In 2006, Anousheh became the first Iranian to travel to space, a goal she had set her sights on from a very young age.

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But there were more than a few barriers to getting there – firstly, the fact that Iran didn’t have a space programme at the time. But that didn’t deter Anousheh, who took a different path to reach the rocket.

"Women in certain fields do have more barriers to overcome and it’s ignorant to ignore that. I don’t want to say I [achieved in my career] because I’m a woman, but I was able to despite the additional barriers in front of me" 

As a child, Anousheh’s curiosity was piqued by the night sky, leading her to study maths and science.

“I didn’t see an easy path to learn about space, so that became a secondary goal while I pursued a degree in computer engineering,” she says, a course that taught her problem-solving skills and sat well with her desire to solve puzzles.

“When something is broken, I need to fix it. So when I see problems around me, I’m compelled to do something about it.” 

Anousheh Ansari made history as the first Iranian, the first Muslim
woman and the first female space tourist

Building a career in telecommunications, technology and engineering, Anousheh was one of the few women in her area.

“I never used this as a handicap or to complain,” she says, “but women in certain fields do have more barriers to overcome and it’s ignorant to ignore that. I don’t want to say I [achieved in my career] because I’m a woman, but I was able to despite the additional barriers in front of me.” 

Never shying away from taking risks, Anousheh chose to pursue her dream of space at 37 years old, going back to school to study for a Masters in astronomy.

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Her journey since then has been well-documented; she began spaceflight training in Russia as a backup for another traveller, who couldn’t complete the mission due to medical reasons.

Anousheh stepped up to the main crew and lifted off in 2006. But for the Iranian-born American citizen flying with a Russian crew, politics weren’t far behind. 


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A proud Iranian (“I don’t support the Iranian government, but I'm not ashamed of the history and culture of a country that's continued to drive things like poetry and science,”) Anousheh wanted to wear the politically neutral Iranian flag on her spacesuit alongside the US flag, referencing both the country that raised her and the freedoms, opportunities and resources she’d been afforded as an American.

However, it was insisted that she didn’t wear the flag, the official reason being that Iran was not part of the 16 nations that supported the International Space Station. 

Not one to be deterred, the entrepreneur wore the flag’s colours. “I wanted to demonstrate that being an Iranian and living in America isn’t an odds.

"My hope is that we look at Earth as where we come from, and we’re all earthlings, so we shouldn’t allow boundaries and borders to divide us. We need to go beyond government policies and look at people.” 

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Anousheh, who sees herself as a global citizen with an affinity for Russia due to her spaceflight, says that the flag was a “unifying” statement rather than a political one, acknowledging how wearing the flag’s colours made Iranian citizens happy.

“They have been vilified through the media because of what the government is doing, but 80% of people who live there don’t approve of everything and are suffering as well. I wanted to show the human face of Iran that loves to feed you and bring you to their homes.”  

On the topic of food, space rations must be a sharp departure from tables laden with tahdig and ghormeh sabzi shared between friends and family, right?

Well, with astronauts sharing their individual ration boxes – Anousheh would swap meats for chocolate and snacks – it’s not so dissimilar.

“We’d all share stories and get to know each other. Breaking bread brings people closer together.”

Anousheh made history as the first Iranian, the first Muslim woman and the first female space tourist, achieving a major life goal, and was also the first person permitted to write blogs from space.

“It took a lot to convince NASA to let me do that, as they wouldn’t allow astronauts to have public communication from the space station. Those blogs really resonated with people and now they’re making TikToks!” 

She hoped that these posts helped young Middle Eastern and Iranian women see that achieving their dreams wasn’t impossible – “you just have to take one step at a time.”

It’s a message she continued to spread through school visits, encouraging them into science and technology, as well as through her book, My Dream of Stars: From Daughter of Iran to Space Pioneer.

After space, Anousheh wondered ‘what next’ for what she calls “the last productive chapter” of her life. She knew she wanted to tackle a big issue, using her skills as an innovator to solve problems, so having already been involved with X Prize as a sponsor and board member, the jump felt natural to be on board as CEO of the non-profit.

In the organisation, which hosts public competitions to encourage technological development for the benefit of humanity, Anousheh saw her potential legacy.

“Depression and suicide are increasing in young people, the world isn’t going in the right direction, but we’re at an important junction in time where our decisions can drive us towards a bright future.”  

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Anousheh hopes her work at X Prize will bring together a “global community of problem solvers and big thinkers to become co-architects of the future.”

Current competitions are tackling water scarcity, carbon removal, wildfires, alternative proteins and rainforest ecosystems, bringing about a “positive, abundant and equitable future. At X Prize, we don’t do innovation for the sake of innovation without thinking through how we can make sure it's accessible to everyone and not just a small portion of the population.”

Now that’s a mission to be proud of.  

Isabella Silvers is a multi-award-winning editor and journalist, having written for Cosmopolitan, Women's Health, Refinery 29 and more. She also writes a weekly newsletter on mixed-race identity, titled Mixed Messages

Follow her on Twitter: @izzymks