Interview with Neda G. Ansari

Since starting this site, I've had the opportunity to meet some unbelievable people.  Neda G. Ansari is one of those amazing people that  you can't help but loving.  She is an active member of the Google Lunar X PRIZE Team Synergy Moon. I caught up with her last week via this email interview. Michael: Tell us a little about yourself

Neda: Thanks for the opportunity to interview with Evadot Michael. I know you’ve worked tirelessly over the past few years to generate some of the best content within the space industry. So I congratulate you for that.

To start, I was born in Iran and spent my early years there. My mom and Dad were both from affluent backgrounds, and divorced when I was 5. I came to the U.S. in 1977 where my parents, mom and stepdad, pursued their graduate work in linguistics and cultural studies. In 1979, we moved back to Iran to a completely different country, eight months after a Revolution had taken place in our absence. Within five years of living there, I adjusted to a strict dress code for women and lived through the first half of the 8-year Iran-Iraq war. For the most part, though, I enjoyed a very happy childhood sheltered by mom and her family who maintained their social standing post-revolution. In 1984, we left Iran via Germany and settled in Boulder, Colorado, where I went to high school. There I was a nerd for the first few months until a year later when I westernized myself into 80’s flashy colors and an Afro hair, a consequence of a perm that I couldn’t maintain well enough. I have a panoramic picture of my graduating class, with me and my hair on the far right.

I then moved to Tallahassee where I majored in chemical engineering at Florida State University, and did the same later at UC San Diego. Studying rocket science which I immensely enjoyed struck a strong chord within, keeping me busy, and away from the things that were happening then, including the first Gulf War. I remember a time when I was sitting on the 8th Floor of the Space-Ship designed UCSD Central Library, falling asleep with my head on the table after solving a rocket equation in thermodynamics, and dreaming I was floating in space, wearing a space suit. I was 20 then. Solving that equation amidst the political climate, I could’ve dreamt of building rockets for war, but the fact that I dreamt about space is a strong indication that I am not normal.

I got married a year later, moved to Vista, California, and started to work for a company called Creative Nail Design, which sold to Revlon two years later. Those were some of the best years of my life as I became immersed in a world of cosmetics, which every woman rightfully enjoys, while also being involved in heavy-duty scientific research in the polymer chemistry field, in a laboratory designed with space-age equipment. Then I quit in 2001 to raise my two girls. I led a domestic life until 2006, when I found myself on Anousheh Ansari’s space blog. The rest has become history, with a piece that I wrote on her blog (Touchdown/Touching Heavens), hinting and predicting President Obama’s journey to the top. The events that led up to that moment in time will be the subject of a book that I plan to publish at a later time.

After that, I ended up focusing back on my previous daily life, mostly taking care of kids, while watching world events unfold.

Michael: What projects are you currently working on?

Neda: In 2009, shortly after publishing a few pieces of my poetry on various forums, including the Google Lunar X PRIZE's Launchpad, and living through very intense times during the Green Revolution of Iran, I joined Team Synergy Moon of GLXP, and also the Executive Board of Space Renaissance International. I have been involved with both entities, working on the academic side, which is where I feel most comfortable often. As of now, I’m organizing a presentation about GLXP for my daughter’s school, conducting this interview, and thinking about collaborating with the Jon Bon Jovi Soul Foundation, while also contemplating spearheading a couple of other business ventures.

Michael: Space is an anomalous subject that many people have a hard time wrapping their minds around. What do you think is important about mankind's quest to explore outside of Earth?

Neda: From the tireless work of the members and executive board of Space Renaissance,  an International group which encompasses a large number of space entities worldwide, I can only say that we are on the verge of making space commonplace. The organization was established to do exactly that – draw public attention to everything related to space, from Space Based Solar Power, to children’s space education, space-age philosophies, commercial space exploration, and others that help propel humanity into the future. Our executive board is comprised of those very heavily involved in the industry, some from the time of SPUTNIK and the first Moon Walk, the Appollo years, and the younger generations who started their work later on. Our membership is in the thousands now, on a continuous growth curve.

But you are absolutely right that the majority of people on this earth are ambiguous about space – I’ve experienced this phenomenon myself to an extreme level, unfortunately. That’s why I was drawn to space advocacy entities in the first place. We’re working to help people understand that the industry is vital to humanity’s thrive. With commercial space on a major lift in the immediate future, especially with the recent successes of Space X, Virgin Galactic, and the excitement associated with the Google Lunar X PRIZE competition, we have already witnessed a quantum leap if you will, in advancing humanity’s mind into accepting the reality of this phenomenon in our lifetime. It is certainly a very decisive era and how we direct efforts could set the stage for future generations, so we have to be cautious. And to specifically answer your question, again, what I’ve always personally advocated is children’s science education in general, and as it relates to space and its spinoffs. Children often get most excited about space themed lessons when I teach science. There are countless resources that can be tapped into, most available on the internet. So far, as it has been my experience, many teachers and schools at the elementary level are not up to par as to utilize these resources. I’ve often taken it upon myself on the local level to attend various schools and initiate things, directing them to these resources. The reception has always been “this is fantastic,” “we are so grateful,” etc., which has encouraged me tremendously to continue.

Michael: You have done so much work related to space exploration. What is it about space that has drawn you to it so strongly? Was it something your parents did with you as a child? Or were you inspired by a single event?

Neda: Thanks for acknowledging my work Michael. It definitely was a time in my childhood that set the stage. I was 5 or 6, and I recall having a very clear thought in my head that I wasn’t going to live forever so I’d better do something useful for humanity. I think perhaps all the grown-up political talk around me had somehow got to me! I remember my brother receiving fancy space robots as gifts while I got dolls, which I was seldom interested in. I was jealous of my brother in that sense. Then I recall asking my mom once (and she remembers the conversation to this day), whether being a scientist was more important than being a doctor. The politically correct answer would’ve obviously been “a doctor is first a scientist,” but she told me “science because scientists discover drugs for the doctors to prescribe!” And so I decided to become a scientist to work at grassroots levels. With all the subsequent moving from country to country and having to adjust linguistically and culturally, I kept the same path. In college, after scoring a cumulative 4.0 on my pre-engineering coursework, I decided to pursue chemical engineering with a group of close friends, from different backgrounds. Life took its turns and I ended up in another industry, albeit still in science/engineering. I did not anticipate entering the space industry, and I didn't even watch the footage of the Ansari X PRIZE because I was heavily involved with my kids at the time. I only heard about it once, and it wasn’t until a year and a half later that I learned more and finally became invested in it. From my perspective, I thought this was better than winning the lottery, in every sense possible. The more I found out, the more I became interested. Everything I ever believed in had culminated in this unbelievable prize, and then more, and the icing on the cake was my name on it. Thankfully trained well enough academically and professionally, with a strong inclination towards arts/theater/humanities I was able to direct my own train of thought as further events unfolded. It all climaxed at the time Anousheh Ansari went to space as I started commenting on her blog, when suddenly I gauged the audience at several million, as I carried my work through. How could I not be involved – this was destiny at its best.

A few years later, the more I see the amazing enthusiasm, drive, and passion of people I’m associated with, whether it’s Space Renaissance, GLXP, people at the X PRIZE Foundation, or the International Space Station and folks at NASA, some of whom I’m connected to via social media, the more I become hopeful for humanity. As I’ve often found, the world is a much better place than portrayed. My mission is to make others, especially children, realize the incredible potentials within themselves, so that they're prepared when opportunity knocks, like I was.

Michael: Like most people, your family heritage is an important part of the person you are and your life pursuits. What is unique about your heritage?

Neda: As I hinted earlier, my family was heavily involved in the politics of Iran, pre ’79 revolution. What I’ve valued most again, is a very strong sense of social justice, at the root level from very personal experiences as well as my family heritage relating to. Many of my family members immigrated to countries outside of Iran, including the United States, where they excelled in various fields – some for instance in recent years have been awarded prestigious international prizes towards advancement and promotion of human rights. I myself have a very strong sense of politics, at a fundamental level which could relate to my heritage as such. But to be honest with you politics per-se bores me – I often create my own (in a good way, of course), and then observe the aftermath.

Michael: How do we best work together to explore space as a global community?

Neda: Space, as you know Michael, is at the core of most Nations’ political agendas. Take the Google Lunar X PRIZE as I know you happen to be an expert on. Look what it has done to bring people from all over the world together in a phenomenally short period of time, originating from the vision of very few people, who truly believed in the future of humanity. The work of the X PRIZE Foundation as a pioneer in this endeavor has been phenomenal truly showing what a small group of people can do to dramatically influence the world for the better. And what you’re doing with Evadot and your work with Space UP, are other examples of course. The ISS on the other hand has been an ideal model of nations working together. So to answer the question, thankfully we’re already doing it.

Michael: How could everyday people get involved in space exploration?

Neda: Things that have drawn great attention to space exploration have included involvement of world-class artists. I was very happy to see two of my favorite bands, Nickelback, and U2 connect with the ISS. When I saw Nickelback in Huston, talking to ISS, for example, I was elated. And before that, when U2 broadcast their live contact with the Space Station to their audience, I thought the moment had to be a pinnacles of humanity’s excellence. The imprint that endeavors like this leave on people’s minds are precisely what is needed to draw more attention. I’m working with Space Renaissance now to explore more opportunities.

Michael: What's the most exciting thing that's happened in the last 10 years?

Neda: Opening of commercial space, no doubt, and the politics that have followed.

Michael: What's the most important thing that will happen in the next 10 years?

Neda: Use of space to generate cleaner, more affordable energy for the people of this planet.

Michael: What would you tell a group of kids about becoming a generation who's job it is to follow where we leave off? What should we be doing differently to ensure that they have the best shot at continuing what we start?

Neda: Kids have the most wildest of imaginations. We don’t live in the world of 40 years ago when information was not as readily available.

They already see what is happening, and they know more than what we give them credit for. I would present them with a history of how it all started, and then let their imaginations soar. It’s their future. With a little guidance, we should believe that they can handle it on their own.

Thanks again for the interview Michael. I wish you and Evadot continued success and look forward to the excellent work you're involved with.