The descriptive phrase Spaceflight Participant was adopted by NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration and Russia’s space agency to identify private citizens who pay a substantial fee to travel into space. This is much more appropriate than “space tourist,” which is still used in the media by the uninformed.
During the United States’ shuttle program, NASA implemented Payload Specialist and Mission Specialist categories which were separate from its astronauts. The Payload Specialists were not employees of NASA, but were members of private companies or research organizations which paid for the individual’s training for flight qualification as well as training specific to the payload being carried by the space shuttle. During the entire history of the shuttle program, NASA did not permit or accept private citizens to pay for training and a seat aboard a shuttle flight to the International Space Station.
From Russia, With Love
However, the Federal Space Agency of the Russian Federation (FSA) was open to doing this. The American company, Space Adventures of Virginia, arranged with the FSA for mission training at Star City, the cosmonaut training facility outside of Moscow. The first Space Adventures spaceflight participant to pay for the privilege of going to the International Space Station was Dennis Tito. His mission took place during April and May of 2001.
In September 2006, the first female spaceflight participant, Anousheh Ansari, successfully achieved her “dream of stars.” Ansari was born in Iran, emigrated to the United States, and with her husband, established a highly successful telecom company in Richardson, Texas. The Ansaris became involved in financial sponsorship of the X-Prize, which became the Ansari X-Prize. In her autobiography My Dream of Stars, (co-written with Homer Hickam), Ansari states she was invited to participate in training at Star City as a potential backup for an upcoming mission. After much thought given regarding the six month separation from her husband the training would require, she decided to do it.
Space Adventures had arranged for Japanese businessman Daisuke Enomoto to become the fourth spaceflight participant. However, four weeks before the flight, Enomoto was disqualified for the mission over a health concern. The FSA informed Space Adventures of the decision, and also informed them Ansari was prepared and cleared for flight. Ansari received a phone call from Erik Anderson of Space Adventures that she would replace Enomoto as a prime crew member. Her dream would, indeed, come true.
Ansari, with two other crew members of the TMA-9 mission to the ISS, was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on September 18, 2006. The capsule successfully reached orbit, and when Ansari was finally able to view the Earth through the window, she had a personal epiphany.
The Overview Effect
“I was crying…it’s such a beautiful sight no matter how many times you’ve seen the pictures and images,” Ansari told Elizabeth Knighten of The Dallas Morning News. “Seeing Earth from space with your own eyes, it’s really a different kind of experience and it really truly is a humbling experience.”
While that moment was certainly emotional for Ansari, she was made of considerably tougher stuff, having endured rigorous training, made a considerable financial commitment and had received the blessing of the Russian medical team to perform well on the International Space Station. Ansari and her crew members would have to wait two days before the capsule finally docked with the ISS on September 20, 2006.
After a blissful night of weightless (microgravity, to be correct) sleep, Ansari awoke. She moved a little too quickly and suddenly, she admitted in her book, she became very sick. It would take some time for her mind and body to get used to the new environment so different from life on Earth. Her feeling of illness continued into the second day when they would rendezvous with the space station.
The capsule eventually docked to the ISS and the three crew members transferred to the orbiting station. At the time Ansari was aboard the ISS in 2006, it was only about a third of its completed status today. She was, indeed, the first female spaceflight participant to be aboard the space station, but the present members on board were not impressed with her unique status.
The personal crew area she was assigned had a viewing window that allowed her to enjoy the continents, rivers and oceans pass by below. The ISS orbited the Earth every 90 minutes. She experienced sunrise and sunset in rapid succession. She was particularly intrigued during the nighttime phase of orbit to look down on cities with their lights ablaze, and she would try to identify them.
Getting down to business on the ISS
Ansari had started a blog recording her training in Star City up to the day before the launch. Aboard the ISS, a laptop had been set up for her to continue her blog and record her impressions of the spaceflight and her time on the space station. She was pleased to see so many people around the world following her mission. Ansari was particularly touched by young people in Iran who replied to her posts. Her first blog post from the ISS was titled, “Hello World.”
Ansari spent most of her time on the station taking more than 1500 photographs and blog posting. One of her most popular and commented on posts was regarding the reality of personal hygiene in microgravity. She described how she washed her hair—very carefully it turns out. After teeth brushing, she said they do not spit it out; they have to swallow it.
During her mission, her husband stayed in Russia and she communicated with him every day. Sometimes she was permitted to speak with her mother and other family members. On the fourth day of her time aboard the station, she gave an interview for reporters on Earth. She was quoted saying, “I am having a wonderful time here. It’s been more than what I expected, and I am enjoying every single second of it. The entire experience has been wonderful up here.”
Although she spent six months training, virtually none of that training involved performing official duties on the mission. She did conduct several experiments for the European Space Agency.
Heading back to Earth
Ansari’s “days” passed quickly and on September 29th, she, cosmonaut Pavel “Pasha” Vinogradov and astronaut Jeffrey Williams prepared to return to Earth aboard a Soyuz capsule. Ansari described the trials of reentry, stating in her book she survived 4.5 Gs during the descent. However, the landing was far more severe than she had anticipated. When the capsule door was finally opened by the recovery team, they were placed in special seats on the ground to begin getting acclimated to Earth gravity. Ansari’s husband Hamid was there waiting for her.
After the mission debriefing, Ansari and her husband returned to the United States and Texas. The Ansaris are serial entrepreneurs. Prodea Systems, produces wireless interconnectivity systems for the home.
World-renowned soprano Sarah Brightman signed an agreement with Space Adventures and began training, like Ansari had, in Star City in January 2015. I wrote an article about that for The Space Review which you can read here. She would have become the second female spaceflight to travel to the ISS. In May she unexpectedly decided to postpone her flight to the ISS and stopped her training. Brightman hopes to full her dream at some point in the future.