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What you learn in space

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Anousheh Ansari isn’t just another tourist in Rajasthan.

Image Credit: Reuben Singh

Anousheh Ansari, the first female space tourist, is using the experience to hack an unlikely challenge: helping technophobes in Rajasthan cross the digital divide.

Once every fortnight, Anousheh Ansari travels from Richardson, Texas, to Jaipur or Terminal 3 of the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi. From the airport, she heads straight to rural Rajasthan, where she often spends days on the road in a Toyota Innova. But then, Ansari, 49, has a lifetime’s experience in tough travel. When she was 16, her family moved to the U.S. leaving their home in Teheran in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution. Just before turning 40, she did one better by flying to space.

In Rajasthan, Ansari’s travels take her to the districts of Jaipur, Ajmer, and Sikar, where Prodea Systems, the company she co-founded in 2006, is running a not-for-profit programme to digitise households in partnership with the state government. The centrepiece is a television set-top box powered by Prodea’s cloud-based technology that beams information on education, healthcare, agriculture, and government services. Revenue comes from online service providers that vie for the local reach, and eventually advertisements by local businesses. Bidding is on for the online vendors. “The idea is to use the TV and the remote as an access point for citizen services” rather than a computer and keyboard, says Ansari. “There was 3G available already, but nobody was using it. [We chose the TV because it] helps overcome the fear of technology.”

The government wanted to extend the project to Kota and Jhalawar, but implementation partner Tata Trusts, which has also provided seed funding, decided to start small in order to keep logistics under control and demonstrate viability. Since work began six months ago, the project has covered 3,000 homes. The target is to reach 30,000 homes by September. 

Globally, Prodea’s customers—the company counts South Africa, Europe, South America, and the U.S among its markets—use its platform to connect household digital appliances for a seamless experience. The devices could be smart-anything—TVs, laptops, mobiles, tablets, or wearables—and could be built on any operating system. Ansari says Prodea will plug into the demand for in-home services, like monitoring health, expected to boom in the Internet of Things (IoT) era. “Consumers want a connected digital life. The devices you use need to talk to each other constantly,” she tells me on the sidelines of Development Dialogue, a conference hosted earlier this year by the social entrepreneurship incubator Deshpande Foundation in Hubli, Karnataka.

Despite the limitations in Rajasthan, Ansari says it’s a valuable primer on consumer habits and network challenges as well as working with the government. The lessons will prove handy when Prodea goes to other emerging markets where Internet uptake is poor.  

Prodea is Ansari’s second innings as an entrepreneur alongside her founding team: husband Hamid Ansari, who is president of Prodea, and brother-in-law Amir Ansari, who is chief technology officer. The trio started their first venture, Telecom Technologies, in 1993, the dawn of the Internet and telephony era. “Entrepreneurship was not this great, low-cost career option back then,” she says. “We paid salaries using our credit cards.” Headquartered in Dallas, Telecom Technologies gave clients like WorldCom, Qwest Communications, HP, Sprint, and AT&T a platform to test their products. “We developed software for a lot of problems in the early days of wireless networks and gave large companies [a platform  to experiment] outside of their bureaucratic setups,” says Ansari.

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Peter Diamandis roped in the Ansaris as patrons of his X-Prize.

The company grew into a 250-employee operation, and in 2001, just before the dotcom bust, Sonus Networks acquired it for more than $700 million (over Rs 4,400 crore at today’s rates). The exit would pave the way for Ansari’s voyage to the International Space Station and make her a global celebrity as the first female space tourist, the fourth private space explorer, and the first astronaut of Iranian descent. But Ansari couldn’t have known that yet.

ANSARI ARRIVED in the U.S. in 1983 with her mother and younger sister (her father would leave Teheran later) and no English. As a teenager, she dreamt of space. “But my mother always reminded me: This is a new world. We are starting all over again with practically nothing, and you are the eldest child in the family,” she says.

Ansari enrolled for an electronics and computer engineering degree at George Mason University, Virginia, followed by a master’s degree from George Washington University at Washington D.C. 

While applying for her master’s, she got through two streams: astrophysics and electrical engineering. She chose the practical option. “I knew I had to earn for my family,” she says. “We had done research on the fields that were growing and had better job prospects. Electrical engineering just made sense.” 

But Ansari’s real learning in the U.S. involved a different kind of circuitry: the power of serendipity and networking. “I discovered how important it is to meet people who are going through the same type of struggles or have the same dreams,” she says. She met Amir during her undergrad days and Hamid at MCI, a pioneering telecom firm now part of Verizon, where she took a job after getting her master’s. Hamid has been more than a colleague and husband. Ansari calls him a “mentor”. 

Another life-changing connection started taking shape in 1996, when Ansari heard a speech by Peter Diamandis, son of Greek immigrants settled in New York, and co-founder of the International Space University. Diamandis was announcing the X-Prize, a $10 million contest to build a private spaceship that can carry three individuals to a 100 km altitude—twice inside of two weeks. Ansari was hooked. 

It took the big-ticket sale of Telecom Technologies to bring her on Diamandis’s radar. “In 2001, I read about ... a couple who had just sold their company,” Diamandis would blog in 2006. “The article said that Anousheh’s dream was to fly on a suborbital trip into space. I stopped and re-read that article three times. In that moment I knew that Anousheh was the person I needed to find.” The two met, and in 2003 the Ansari family signed up to sponsor the X-Prize, which has since come to be known as the Ansari X-Prize. 

The prize sowed the seeds for a brand new private space industry by incentivising international competition and driving regulatory reforms. The first contest attracted 26 teams and was won by aerospace designer Burt Rutan, who thought up SpaceShipOne. The rocket-powered craft was built by Mojave Aerospace Ventures, owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. 

A year later, Ansari was attending the celebrations to mark the SpaceShipOne launch when she met Eric C. Anderson, an aerospace engineer and co-founder and chairman of Virginia-based space tourism company Space Adventures. Space Adventures had purchased seats aboard the Soyuz. Anderson asked if Ansari was interested.  

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Even after coming that close, Ansari was not supposed to be part of TMA-9, the Soyuz mission to the International Space Station in September 2006. She was only offered a spot as a backup for Daisuke Enomoto, a private space explorer from Japan. She persisted with the six-month training programme nonetheless, learning Russian and mastering several difficult simulations at Star City in Moscow as well as gruelling cross-training at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. 

In August 2006, a few weeks before the scheduled flight, Enomoto was disqualified on medical grounds. Ansari hopped on as primary crew, along with commander Michael Lopez-Alegria and flight engineer Mikhail Tyurin. Flight to the ISS lasted two days. The trip back to earth, after eight days at the station, took about four hours. “I wish world leaders could see Earth from space,” Ansari says in almost every public speech. “The policies they make would be so different.”

The Ansaris incorporated Prodea a few weeks before her flight to space. The Rajasthan project, which Ansari calls a first anywhere in the world for the company, materialised after Tata Trusts greenlighted a formal proposal last August.

For the Tatas, the tie-up with Prodea is a significant milestone in Project Druv—a community development programme that seeks to transform the lives of rural and remote populations as part of the government’s Digital India scheme.

“We were dealing with a challenging environment, so we expected some obstacles,” says Ansari. Apart from technophobia, there is India’s notorious signal strength, rendered even weaker by the material that some of the houses in rural areas are made of. “Fortunately, Airtel was excited to work with us and has been helpful in enhancing the network as we identify weak spots,” she says. Raman Kalyanakrishnan, project director at Tata Trusts, says they are exploring pilots with rural broadband service providers. “Other telecom providers have also shown interest.” 

Another impediment Ansari noticed was the typical behaviour of rural users. “We learnt that people turn off their appliances when not in use in order to save energy, and also because there are power surges periodically,” she says. Originally, Prodea had planned to push system updates overnight, when the users would be asleep. But with the set-top boxes switched off at night, it has had to go back to the drawing board.

“One important observation was that women and children of the house are the most active users of our platform,” says Ansari. “This is good news for us since we felt they are the most underserved. We also discovered that they learn fast. Especially the young kids quickly became the expert in the house and were able to manoeuvre the menu. They are thirsty for information, so we have to keep up with them and provide fresh content all the time.” 

The price of keeping up is Ansari’s crammed itinerary. “She is very hands-on. She goes to all the villages and constantly interacts with people,” says a Tata Trusts associate who is working with Ansari.

I ask her if there is any lesson at all from her space trip that she draws on. “Persistence,” she replies. It’s a reply you will hear echoed in the many YouTube videos where she recounts that journey: “When you look down from space, everything appears so small. You think, yes I can fix that.”