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Space travel can solve world’s ‘grand challenges’, pioneering astronaut declares

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Anousheh Ansari is one of the few people who have been able to view the world from space, having undertaken an 11-day expedition in 2006. In doing so, she became the first astronaut of Iranian descent and the first Muslim woman to travel in space.

Ms Ansari declared the voyage was “life changing” and left her in no doubt that the problems facing the world can only be solved when there is unity of purpose between nations.

Speaking ahead of a recent trip to Scotland, Ms Ansari told The Herald: “For me, it was a totally life-changing experience. I spent 11 days in space and the perspective shift you get in space is incredible. I’m a space geek so I had many pictures of earth from space and many pictures of the universe.

“And I studied astronomy so I had the knowledge that we are a small part of a much bigger universe. But being in space realises that image in a different way and it becomes real. It becomes tangible.

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“That realisation when you look at our planet… you feel like you have been told a lie by your geography teacher who showed you this map with all these different colours and these big black lines separating the countries. None of it is out there. You can’t tell one country [from another]. This unity of our planet and its inhabitants, its biodiversity and ecosystem becomes very tangible and apparent when you are in space.

“That realisation makes you really appreciate it. I am frustrated why people can’t see this when it is one whole planet for all of us, and how we are completely interconnected.

“There is no way you can keep problems inside any borders. Problems will travel. We saw how Covid travelled and climate change. All these problems can’t be isolated because there are no lines separating us.

“These problems are global problems. They are problems for all of us to solve, and until we work together it will be very difficult to solve them.”

Ms Ansari has the kind of resume that commands attention. With degrees in electrical and computer engineering from universities in the US, and honorary doctorates from institutions such as the International Space University, she is the former chief executive of Prodea Systems, a leading internet-of-things company she founded in 2006.

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Today, Ms Ansari is the chief executive of XPRIZE Foundation, the world’s leading designer of incentive competitions aimed at solving “humanity’s grand challenges”. She serves on the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council, is a Unesco Goodwill Ambassador and is a member of the STEM Leadership Hall of Fame.

Ms Ansari aid the aim of the XPRIZE Foundation is to “open up commercial space as a way of creating a new marketplace that will benefit humanity on earth, and help us become [an] inter-planetary species and be able to travel and explore space beyond the work of the space agencies”.

Noting that one of the reasons for her trip to Scotland was to help

expand the Foundation’s footprint in Europe, Ms Ansari said: “These large competitions are focused on advancing innovation and breakthroughs to solve humanity’s grand challenges. Our competitions are global, they range from anywhere between [prizes of] $10 million or $20m, to all the way to $100m. We have a $100m carbon extraction competition right now.

“And the reason we do these competitions is because we believe innovation can come from anywhere in the world and from anyone. Our goal is to maximise diversity and participation from any corner in the world.”

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Ms Ansari added: “By visiting Scotland – and I will be coming back to Europe multiple times this year – I hope to establish a bigger presence in Europe, to create more collaborations with businesses, agencies and corporations, and help bring the spirit of innovation and audacious and

bold thinking that XPRIZE promotes entrepreneurs, innovators, and students in Scotland.”

Ms Ansari’s trip to these shores followed an invitation from GlobalScot Craig Samuel and Scottish Enterprise, the economic development agency. And it came at a pivotal stage in the development of the space industry in Scotland, which stands on the brink of significant breakthroughs.

The space industry in Scotland 

currently employs around 7,500 people, accounting for 18% of all UK space roles. More satellites are manufactured here than in any other country in Europe, thanks to the success of companies such as AAC Clyde Space, Spire Global and Alba Orbital.

There are also hopes this year could see the launch of rockets in Scotland by Orbex and Skyrora. The country has the potential to host five spaceports, three with vertical launch sites (Sutherland, Shetland

and North Uist) and two horizontal (Prestwick and Machrihanish).

However, the ambitions will not end there. The Scottish Space Strategy launched in 2021 has targeted increasing the number of people employed by the industry to 20,000 by 2030, by which time it is hoped the sector will be contributing £4 billion to the Scottish economy per year.

Ms Ansari said: “There is an orbital launch planned for this year, which would be the first ever.

“I’m particularly interested in that because Virgin Orbit, which is a US-based firm that had a failed attempt, is a company born out of the first competition we launched.

“I’m very interested in all the different approaches to launch systems that will allow for the many satellites constellations and earth observation satellites to be launched.

“I know there are several companies looking at earth observation and using the data, working with industries in Europe, in the US and other places, for intelligence, analysis and helping to provide solutions.”

Meanwhile, commenting on gender diversity within the space industry,

Ms Ansari said there is a “very large gap” between the number of male and female astronauts.

Only 10% of the astronauts who have made the trip to space have been women, though Ms Ansari expects that number to shift as more and more women take part in sub-orbital flights.

“I hope to see more and more women have this experience, which is life-changing,” she said.

“But the aerospace engineering field in general has one of the lowest participation of women.

“It goes along the line of science and why more women are not involved in STEM education which I hope to see change in the future.

“I will do my part to promote it.”

Q&A

What countries have you most enjoyed travelling to, for business or leisure, and why?
I love hiking and nature so I enjoy any place that can offer amazing hikes. I know Scotland has beautiful landscapes and I hope to take a few hiking trips there when the weather is warmer.

When you were a child, what was your ideal job? Why did it appeal?

I wanted to be an astronaut. Specifically, to be the science officer on board a spaceship, kind of like Spock on Starship Enterprise. 
I wanted to be the one who would make amazing discoveries that would be fascinating. 

What was your biggest break in business?
Receiving our first large customer contract.


What was your worst moment in business?
When we had to downsize during the Covid-19 pandemic and reduce our workforce. 
It was the hardest thing I had to do.

Who do you most admire and why?
Albert Einstein, for the power of his imagination and having the courage to go against popular belief.

What book are you reading and what music are you listening to?
We Are Legion (We Are Bobs) by Dennis E Taylor. I listen to a wide variety of music. My favourite singer is Sting and I took all his songs with me on my iPod to the space station. I love Belgian singer Stromae and have been listening to his 2022 album Multitude. I hope to see him in concert in Europe.

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