When engineer and businesswoman Anousheh Ansari was a little girl, growing up in Iran in the 1970s, she loved to sleep outside and stare at the sky wondering, “What’s out there?” Could it be that somewhere, on a distant planet, there’s another girl looking up at the sky thinking about the same thing?

Ansari dreamed of going to space, and it was that dream — and those moments when she watched the stars at night — that gave her peace as her country underwent a revolution she couldn’t yet comprehend and then entered war with neighbouring Iraq. During a keynote presentation at the Telstra Vantage 2017 conference, Ansari said that her imagination saved her during those terrifying moments.

She called imagination “one of the most precious gifts we have as human beings,” as it allows us to change what we don’t like in our lives and to think about things that don’t exist — then make them real. It starts with the spark of an idea. For her, that spark was space travel. She drew pictures of herself visiting alien worlds in rockets. The adults around her thought it was an unrealistic dream and a phase she’d eventually grow out of and forget. But her stubbornness prevailed.

When Ansari moved to the US in the mid-1980s and saw, with some disappointment, that Star Trek had not become reality, she refused to let her dream end. She became an engineer and built up a successful career in telecommunications and technology, and in 2001 she sold her company.

A few years later she met engineer Peter Diamandis, who had since 1995 been seeking funding for his XPRIZE concept — a competition for non-government organisations to build a reusable vehicle capable of flying a pilot to the edge of space. He’d been turned down, repeatedly, but Ansari and her brother-in-law were impressed by his passion and decided to underwrite the competition. It became the Ansari XPRIZE in May 2004, with participation from 26 teams from 7 countries. The first US$10 million winner was a rocket-powered aircraft called SpaceShipOne.

Richard Branson and Virgin subsequently partnered with SpaceShipOne makers Scaled Composites to design and build rocket planes based on that concept to provide suborbital spaceflights to tourists.

Ansari said the prize helped spur innovation in an area where it had been sorely lacking. She noted that private space technology is now a $100 billion industry, and that it’s now even possible to build and launch low-cost nanosatellites for special communications and research purposes.

Ansari achieved her dream in 2006, aged 40, after training as a backup for a Soyuz flight to the International Space Station, when Japanese businessman Daisuke Enomoto was disqualified for medical reasons. She became the first woman and first Iranian (and fourth overall) private space explorer, and she lived aboard the ISS for eight days — during which time she conducted experiments for the European Space Agency and published the first ever blog from space.

Ansari said that she’s excited about the future, but the pace of change is now so fast — and new technologies have become so intertwined — that it’s hard to predict what lies ahead. She likened it to taking 20 steps on the stage. If they were linear steps, she might reach the end of the stage or a little beyond there. But it would be hard for anyone to imagine 20 exponential steps, which would actually send her around the Earth 125 times.

She argued that it’s important to be prepared for change and to be ready to adapt. To prepare, we can look at the trends: she said 3D printing may transform food, medicine, textiles, and more, and it will make it possible to build habitats on the Moon and Mars; gene editing may cure diseases or grant us new abilities; and augmentation will enable us to regain capabilities lost or to gain entirely new ones.

“Technology is just a tool,” she said, “and how we use it and what we use it for will determine if it’s a good technology or it will actually be a harmful technology.”

The most important thing, Ansari said, is that we let our choices reflect our hope — and not our fear. The future is what we imagine it to be, she concluded, so she implored everyone to “march into the future armed with our hopes and positivity.”