Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Anousheh Ansari - Positive female astronaut role model

In the wake of the diaper-wearing crazed-astronaut love-triangle ruckus comes news that Anousheh Ansari is going to team up with Homer "October Sky" Hickum to write her memoirs.

You may or may not remember that back in September, Anousheh became the world’s first female space tourist as the fourth paying customer to hitch a ride to the space station. It was a pretty big deal at the time, I read a number of articles on her, she got a soundbite or two on the news, of course that coverage pales in comparison to the kind of overwhelming non-stop coverage that Lisa Nowak garnered last week. But I don't want to talk about Lisa (ever again, please), let's talk about a positive female astronaut/entrepreneur role model:

I was frankly surprised by the attention Ansari received at the time of her flight, after all female astronauts are a pretty common sight these days. Is a space tourist so different?

I remember well the first “space tourist” Dennis Tito. That was a big story, we had entered a new era and all that. I vaguely remember hearing about #2, Mark Shuttleworth, but I had nearly forgotten there was a 3rd tourist, Greg Olsen, he got almost no press. I guess the media had decided by #3 that it was old hat, that is until the Japanese Businessman that was supposed to be #4 bowed out for medical reasons and his backup, Ansari was given the green light. Suddenly space tourism was a big deal again, a woman was going, and I read one article after another detailing her adventures.

I did a quick Google search to try and find some historical perspective. It was only 2 years after Yuri Gargarin’s first spaceflight that Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space. It is now more that 5 years since Dennis Tito’s historic ride as the first space tourist.

Of course the situations are far different. Tereshkova’s flight was a novelty act and nothing more (arguably, she was the first “space tourist”, as she was simply along for the ride and was never allowed to take manual control of the spacecraft). She was sent into space simply to check a box, first women in space – check, one more “first” for the Soviet space program. It wasn’t until Sally Ride’s first flight in 1983, a full twenty years after Gargarin, that women finally became a real part of the space program.

Ansari, on the other hand, is far from a novelty act. A life-long space devotee, she is a commercial space entrepreneur who, along with her husband and brother-in-law, has co-founded the Dallas-based company Prodea which is developing the Explorer line of air-launched suborbital vehicles. She and other members of her family donated a sizable chuck of the money for the Ansari X-Prize competition (hence the name) and she remains involved in the X-Prize Foundation, particularly its educational outreach.

The Iranian-born Ansari does see herself as a role model. In an interview with Space.com, she said, “In my work and everything that I have always done, I have tried to be an example. I hope to inspire everyone—especially young people, women, and young girls all over the world, and in Middle Eastern countries that do not provide women with the same opportunities as men—to not give up their dreams and to pursue them.”

In the U.S., little girls may not need Ansari as a role model, they have never lived in a world where women can’t be astronauts or fly in space. But in the Middle East, she will be a powerful symbol of hope for the next generation. For that, I’m grateful that the headline “first woman space tourist” made it around the world.

Will we ever get to a point where “first woman” isn’t a milestone to be recorded? I doubt it. I think we just really likes “firsts”. I wonder, what if the first person to stand on Mars is a woman, will history also made a point to record when the first man hit the ground? Yeah, I think so.

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