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Sunday, September 17, 2006

Iranian-born woman to be space tourist
Updated Sat. Sep. 16 2006 11:24 PM ET

Associated Press

DALLAS -- Since long before leaving her native Iran as a teenager in 1984, Anousheh Ansari stared at the stars and dreamed of traveling closer to them. Now at age 40, after an improbable journey that's included learning a new language, earning an engineering degree and starting a telecommunications company that made her rich, this Dallas businesswoman will become the first female space tourist on a Soyuz spacecraft that lifts off Monday.

"I've always been fascinated with space and always wondered about the mysteries of space and wanted to be able to experience it firsthand," the Texas woman said in a telephone interview from the launch site at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

She says she is eager to see Iran from space -- she hasn't been back since emigrating to the United States -- and hopes to inspire girls in her homeland to study science. Ansari says she's received e-mail messages from many of them, although her flight has received scant attention in Iran. She is, after all, an American citizen.

Ansari and her family left Iran a few years after the Islamic revolution, in part because the opportunities for a young girl to study science were becoming limited there.

Her space ride will cost about $20 million. Ansari can afford it because she and her husband sold their company in 2000 for about $550 million in stock from the acquiring company.

The extent of the couple's wealth is not entirely clear, because the stock fell in value. That led shareholders of the takeover company to sue Anousheh Ansari and several others for alleged insider trading. The case is pending in a Massachusetts federal court.

This isn't the first time she has dipped into her personal fortune to spend on space.

In 2002, she helped pay a $10 million award for the first successful privately financed manned trip into space. SpaceShipOne, backed by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen, claimed the Ansari X Prize by making two flights to the edge of space more than 60 miles above California's Mojave Desert.

Ansari hopes both the X Prize and her trip to the international space station will foster more interest in space travel -- and lower prices if she helps spur more private companies to join the space-tourism race.

Her husband, Hamid, said she believes space travel will be critical one day, when humans deplete Earth's resources and need to colonize space.

In March, she and Hamid and a space-travel broker who works with the Russian space agency went to Kazakhstan. From the VIP section, they watched the launch of a Soyuz rocket and capsule with a crew of three, including Russian Pavel Vinogradov and American Jeff Williams.

"Watching that million-pound ball of fire lifting into space, we grabbed each other's arms," said the broker, Eric Anderson of Space Adventures Ltd. "Seeing the emotion on her face, I could tell she was going to go."

That month, Ansari began cosmonaut training in Russia and at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. But until late August, she was just a backup to a Japanese businessman. Then unspecified health problems forced him off the mission, and Ansari jumped into his place.

Ansari is scheduled to ride in a Soyuz capsule to the space station with Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin and Spanish-born U.S. astronaut Miguel Lopez-Alegria. She will return to Earth with Vinogradov and Williams.

Those who know Ansari describe a woman who is equal parts dreamer and doer.

Speaking no English when she arrived as a teenager with her family in Virginia, she went on to earn bachelor's and master's degrees in engineering within a few years. She was still in graduate school at George Washington University when she began working at phone company MCI in Washington.

"She was very impressive, very bright, and definitely had the drive," said Thanos Voreas, who hired her. "She set a goal and did it. I'm not surprised with what she has accomplished with her life."

Hamid Ansari, who had left Iran a few years before Anousheh (pronounced Ah-NOO-sheh), was already working as an engineer at MCI. The couple married in 1991.

Two years later, she convinced Hamid to cash in their MCI stock options, max out their credit cards, move to Texas and start a company that made signal-switching software for phone networks.

Anousheh Ansari was chairwoman and chief executive of the company, telecom technologies inc. Unable to attract venture capital, the business was touch-and-go for several years before revenue grew into the tens of millions, Hamid Ansari said.

In 2000, at the height of the telecommunications boom, the Ansaris sold their suburban Dallas company to Massachusetts-based Sonus Networks Inc. for $550 million in Sonus stock.

The value of those shares slid from $40 to under $5 as the telecom industry collapsed. But, Hamid Ansari said, "We had enough opportunity to sell enough shares to earn financial independence."

The timing of some stock sales led to shareholder suits against Sonus and nine people, including Anousheh Ansari, by then a Sonus vice president. The plaintiffs accused her of illegal insider trading in the sale of $26.3 million in Sonus stock.

The Ansaris declined to comment on the lawsuit, other than to note that she is no longer a Sonus officer. A spokeswoman for the couple said the Securities and Exchange Commission never accused Mrs. Ansari of insider trading.

The Ansaris have moved on, starting a venture-capital and home-networking-technology firm, Prodea Systems Inc. The company plans a combination grand opening and launch-watching party Sunday night at its headquarters in suburban Plano. (The launch is scheduled for shortly after 11 p.m. CDT.)

Ansari will test some of its new technology during the space trip and also plans to write a blog from the space station. Her parents and other U.S. relatives are in Kazakhstan to watch the launch.

Hamid Ansari said he tested his wife's resolve for the risky trip months ago by talking of the rigors of training, the cramped conditions and the dangers.

"The more negative I got, the more determined she got," he said. "She is so calm, confident and excited that I felt bad about being nervous."

Space-travel enthusiasts hope the Dallas entrepreneur will be an inspiration to a new generation of young women.

"We have a lot of white male astronauts," said George Whitesides of the National Space Society, a nonprofit group that advocates space travel. "To have someone different is great. It enables girls and women to identify more with space and talk about being a space explorer someday."

Bio of Anousheh Ansari:

Age: 40, born Sept. 12, 1966, in Mashhad, a city in northern Iran.

Education: Bachelor's degree in electronics and computer engineering from George Mason University in Virginia; master's degree in electrical engineering from George Washington University.

Career: Co-founder and chief executive of telecom technologies inc., a maker of software for switching signals on phone networks in the Dallas suburb of Richardson, Texas. Company was sold in 2000 to Sonus Networks Inc., which says it paid $552.6 million in Sonus stock. Was a vice president at Sonus. Co-founded venture-capital and home-networking-technology firm Prodea Systems Inc. in Plano, Texas. Helped finance the Ansari X Prize in 2002, which paid $10 million to the operators of SpaceShipOne for being first to make two successful privately financed manned trips into space.

Family: Lives in Plano with husband, Hamid, who co-founded the Ansari companies. No children.

Quote: "People think they reach the height of their life at age 40. I'm hoping this is just the beginning of another hill that I will be climbing."


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