MICHEL MARTIN, host: All this week we've been marking the last U.S. space shuttle mission with our series Flying High: The First in Their Class. We've spoken with the first Latina astronaut, the first African-American to walk in space, and the Saudi prince who was the first Arab, the first Muslim and the first member of a royal family in space.
Today we hear from another space pioneer. She is Anousheh Ansari, who became the first female space tourist in 2006. The first male space tourist went up in 2001, if you're keeping track. Ansari traveled as part of the crew of the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. She spent 11 days at the International Space Station and paid around $20 million to make that trip and fulfill her childhood dream. At the time, she offered some advice to those who dream of space travel themselves.
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ANOUSHEH ANSARI: Don't let anyone or anything give you any borders or barriers for your imagination. Imagine beyond the possibilities and let your thinking be free. Learn from everything around you and then listen to the voice inside you to tell you what you need to do.
MARTIN: And Anousheh Ansari joins us now on the phone from the United Arab Emirates where she's been traveling. And I understand that you really don't like the term space tourist. You prefer what?
ANSARI: I prefer space explorer because I think that's a more appropriate terminology. I tell people, would you call someone who climbs Mount Everest, for example, an Everest tourist? So at this point in time I think we cannot trivialize the effort and the training it takes to accomplish the task of traveling to space. So I prefer something different.
MARTIN: Space explorer. OK. Now, and speaking of which, how did you prepare for the trip? And was it different? Was the training the same as the other astronauts had to undergo?
ANSARI: The training essentially was the same. I was training alongside of the other astronauts and cosmonauts. However, they trained for a lot longer, especially is you have a position as the commander of the Soyuz or the space station. What I did was what is required of a space (unintelligible).
MARTIN: And I think many people will want to know or be reminded of why did you want to go to begin with? You know, obviously if you had the means to make this trip, there are plenty of other things that you could have done with those resources. As we mentioned, it was about $20 million. Why did you want to go?
ANSARI: As you said yourself, it has been a childhood dream of mine, something that I had the deep desire to experience. And I suspected it would change my life and it has changed my life. And it's something that was a deeply-rooted desire along, you know, learning more about the cosmos, learning more about how our universe was created and how everything came to be. Basically, there all these questions of why am I here? How did I get here? And what am I doing here?
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.
We're speaking with the first woman to pay for her own voyage to space, Anousheh Ansari. I should mention that you were also the first Iranian-American in space and that you had both an Iranian and American flag present on your uniform. And I also understand that women in Tehran had gathered at an observatory there to view the International Space Station while you were visiting it. Could you talk about your reaction when you heard that?
ANSARI: I was very excited to hear all the positive coverage of my trip to space, especially in Iran. I think women of Iran, you know, can accomplish so much more, given the opportunity. And I was fortunate enough to be able to travel to the United States and receive a good education and be able to have the freedoms to do what I have accomplished. And there are lots of Anoushehs in Iran that can do similar things given the opportunity.
And the reason I carried both flags, because I think both countries have played a major role in creating the person I am today and helping me accomplish what I've accomplished.
MARTIN: You were also the first person to blog from space. Will you tell us about how you got the idea to do that? And how did people react to it?
ANSARI: Actually, I wanted to find a way to connect and communicate my experience to everyone. And especially I wanted to be able to communicate with the young people, young women around the world and to sort of use my story and this trip as something that would inspire them to go after their dreams. And it was something that was strange to me because I had never written anything for the public and I didn't know how it would be received. And I was pleasantly surprised when I saw that people are reading it and enjoying it and millions of people were visiting the website.
MARTIN: And I did want to ask, this is something you kind of alluded to earlier, but I wanted to ask if you'd talk a little bit more about - how do you think your trip changed you? I mean, I've heard you say variously that it really was a transformative experience and it was spiritually powerful, as well as intellectually exciting. And how do you think it changed you?
ANSARI: I think one of the profound impacts that it had on my life has been the fact that I look at everything from a global perspective. And, also, it's something that is really an experience that humbles you and empowers you at the same time. It humbles you because you feel very, very small compared to, you know, the universe that surrounds you.
And at the same time, you know, when you look at our planet, it seems much smaller than you imagined it in your head. And you feel like you can solve any problem and it would be easy to solve any problem.
MARTIN: Anousheh Ansari was the first self-funded woman to travel to space. She continues to help fund research for commercial space travel. She was kind enough to join us from the United Arab Emirates where she is traveling. Anousheh Ansari, thank you so much for joining us.
ANSARI: It was a pleasure. Thank you.
MARTIN: If you'd like to listen to any of the other interviews from our series, Flying High: The First in Their Class, just go to NPR.org, click on the Programs tab and then on TELL ME MORE.