Muslims and the Future of Space Tourism
Anousheh Ansari: The First Muslim "Private Space Explorer"
By Freelance Writer - United States
The high cost of civilian space travel, however, means that only a handful of people will sign up for the adventure.
Last September, Anousheh Ansari became one of the privileged few, paying an estimated $20 million for ten days in space. The experience, made possible through the collaboration of the Russian Federal Space Agency with the US-based Space Adventures (the only company to have successfully launched private explorers into space), included a ride aboard a Soyuz TMA-9 spacecraft and eight days at the International Space Station (ISS). Accompanied by NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin, Ansari was the fourth person ever to participate in the Space Adventures program since it began sending civilians to space in 2001 (Ansari; Boyce; News).
Ansari (whose first name Anousheh means "happy" or "fortunate" in her native Farsi) was the first female client of Space Adventures as well as the first American of Iranian descent to visit space. She was also the first Muslim woman to make such a trip. (Iranian Baby Names; Ansari)
Not Space Camp
The training one undergoes for a journey to the ISS is rigorous, requiring at least six months of preparation alongside space professionals. Ansari trained at both NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, and at Star City near Moscow, Russia. She initially trained as the backup for Japanese businessman Daisuke Enomoto, whose trip was later postponed due to unspecified health concerns, and took his place. She also learned to speak Russian (Japanese Space Tourist; Boyle; Chilcote; Farwell).
Candidates for ISS travel must be in excellent health and meet certain requirements for physical endurance and mental stamina. They are also expected to display good moral behavior and can be disqualified for previous criminal activity, alcohol or substance abuse, lying, or affiliation with organizations that could harm the integrity of the spaceflight program. (Halvorson).
An MSNBC interactive quiz called "Are You Fit for Space?" lists some of NASA's medical requirements for space flight and asks questions like "Can you hear an average conversational voice in a quiet room, using both ears, from 6 feet away, with back turned to the individual speaking?" and "Do you think you can swim three lengths of a 25-meter pool without stopping, and then swim three lengths of the pool in a flight suit and tennis shoes?" According to MSNBC, the medical requirements of NASA astronauts are similar to those for commercial airline pilots.
"This is not space camp," cautions the Space Adventures website, speaking of the exercises that allow clients to experience the sensation of a rocket launch, fly a Soyuz simulator, and learn to function in a bulky spacesuit made of flame-resistant nomex material. In one exercise requiring scuba certification, clients wear spacesuits underwater as the skills needed to assemble and repair spacecraft at the ISS are learned (Spaceflight Training).
Not Your Average Tourist
Ansari became one of the privileged few, paying an estimated $20 million for ten days in space.
Ansari, an entrepreneur who made her fortune in the telecom industry, blogged from space as she discussed the challenges of eating, sleeping, and maintaining personal hygiene in zero gravity. A self-described "space ambassador," she documented her journey with audio recordings, photos, and videos, and shared thoughts on everything from space sickness to world peace (Ansari).
But space tourism is not without controversy, however, and some used the blog forum to ask Ansari, who immigrated to America from Iran as a teenager in 1984, if the money she spent should not have been used to alleviate the suffering of the Earth's poor instead. Others have described civilian space travel as an elitist activity with no tangible benefits and said that the exploration of space is an "extreme" sport, too dangerous for average citizens to risk (Ansari Space Blog; Why So Much Controversy?).
In response to critics, Ansari, who has served on the boards of not-for-profit organizations such as the Make-a-Wish Foundation of North Texas and the Collin County Children's Advocacy Center, explained that "there are many ways to tackle a problem" and that her preference is to focus on long-term solutions for hunger, disease, and other problems (Ansari; Ansari Space Blog).
"Many of the hunger problems occur because of drought and bad farming practices," she told blog readers. "Did you know that space research helps figure out changes in soil conditions and environment and ways of preventing crop damage?" (Ansari Space Blog).
Ansari, like space tourists before and after her (the fifth, a former Microsoft engineer, just returned to Earth in April), used her time in space to conduct scientific experiments. One experiment, called Neocytolysis, was aimed at gathering data that would help scientists better understand what causes anemia. Another involved the study of lower back pain. Ansari also helped collect data on microbial life forms onboard the Space Station and participated in a "Chromosome-2" experiment to determine the effects of radiation on human space explorers. In addition, Ansari, who calls herself as a "private space explorer," made a series of educational films, intended for use in schools, demonstrating some laws of physics (News; ESA Experiments; Goudarzi).
Space Tourism Gains Momentum
Zero-gravity flights similar to those used to train professional astronauts cost private citizens $5,595. (NASA)
Supporters of space tourism point out that the fees for civilian space travel, while "astronomical" by most people's standards, help fund space exploration and will eventually help make the experience more accessible to private citizens.
The costs are already coming down for less intense space-related activities, such as a jaunt into suborbital space and five minutes of weightlessness offered by Space Adventures for $102,000. Eight days of cosmonaut training at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City cost $58,295, zero-gravity flights cost $5,595, and EVA training, or spacewalk simulation, costs $3,475. Perks like space "hotels" may be offered by some companies in the future (Why So Much controversy?; Boyce; Suborbital Spaceflight; More Spaceflight Experiences; Spaceflight Training; David).
According to a report by Space Today Online, a 2002 Zogby telephone poll of 450 wealthy Americans found that 7 percent would pay $20 million for a two-week orbital flight like Ansari's, while 19 percent would pay $100,000 for a 15-minute suborbital flight to an altitude of 50 miles. If the price of a two-week flight dropped to $5 million, the report stated, 16 percent would buy tickets.
Another survey conducted via the Incredible Adventures website found that nearly two-thirds of respondents would like to go around the moon if they could afford it. For the time being, though, that'll still cost you $100 million at Space Adventures, which says its first manned moon expedition could launch as early as 2009 (Tourists Visit; David; Boyce).
SpaceShipOne won the Ansari X-prize in 2004 and will serve as a prototype for Virgin Galactic's fleet of commercial spaceships. (Scaled Composites)
Ansari, who holds a bachelor's degree in electronics and computer engineering from George Mason University, as well as a master's degree in electronic engineering from George Washington University, is currently working toward a second master's degree in astronomy. Besides her pioneering journey to the ISS, she and her family helped create and fund the Ansari X-prize in 2004, which gave $10 million to the team first able to launch a spacecraft capable of carrying three people to 100 kilometers above the earth's surface, twice within two weeks (Ansari; X Prize).
The winning spacecraft, SpaceShipOne, served as the prototype for the spaceships to be used by Virgin Galactic. That company has been selling tickets for suborbital flights for $200,000 each since 2005 and plans to actually start sending civilians to space by 2009. In contrast to a trip to the ISS, a suborbital flight with Virgin Galactic will last 2.5 hours and require just three days of training. Since there is no vertical launch, this type of flight is also more accessible to the average person in good health (Virgin Galactic).
To keep up with the growing interest in space tourism, commercial spaceports are popping up around the world, including one planned by Space Adventures in Ras Al-Khaimah, UAE. While Virgin Galactic will launch flights from the US state of New Mexico, the company has also tapped into the UAE-market by setting up promotions and choosing Sharaf Travel, a Dubai-based travel agency, to handle ticketing for the region. Ibrahim Sharaf, chairman of the Sharaf Group, has reserved a ticket on Virgin Galactic's inaugural flight, which makes him the first Emirati scheduled to visit space (Nazzal; Gale; Ibrahim Sharaf to Be First Emirati in Space).
Namira Salim, an artist from Pakistan, is likely to be the second Muslim woman in space. Salim, who spends much of her time in Dubai, will be among Virgin Galactic's first 100 passengers and is actively working to promote space tourism through exhibits and other events (Chang).
According to the 2006 World Wealth Report, there are about 300,000 millionaires in the Middle East having a combined wealth of $1.2 trillion. About 59,000 are from the UAE (Sharif).
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Amel Abdullah is a freelance writer and the managing editor of Our Rising Star, a bimonthly magazine packed with Islamic knowledge, community news, and informative articles for today's Muslim family.
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