- The Washington Times - Friday, September 15, 2006

DALLAS — Anousheh Ansari, since long before leaving her native Iran as a teenager in 1984, 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, which 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 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. Mrs. Ansari says she has received e-mail messages from many of them, although her flight has received scant attention in Iran. She is, after all, an American citizen.

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

Her space ride will cost about $20 million. She 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 her and several others for 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 reward 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.

Mrs. 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.

In March, she and her husband, Hamid Ansari, 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, Mrs. Ansari began cosmonaut training in Russia and at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. But until late August, she was a backup to a Japanese businessman. Then health problems forced him off the mission, and she jumped into his place.

She 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 Mr. Vinogradov and Mr. Williams.

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.”

Mr. Ansari, who had left Iran a few years before her, was already working as an engineer at MCI. The couple married in 1991.

Two years later, she convinced him 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.

She 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, Mr. Ansari said.

The Ansaris sold their suburban Dallas company to Sonus Networks Inc. of Massachusetts for $550 million in Sonus stock.

The value of those shares slid from $40 to less than $5 as the telecom industry collapsed. But, Mr. 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 persons, including Mrs. 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.

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 tomorrow night at its headquarters in suburban Plano.

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

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