U.S. Programmer to Become Space Tourist
STAR CITY, Russia — Decades before helping to write the programs that led to Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel, Charles Simonyi learned the basics on a clunky, Soviet-era computer called Ural-2. Next month, the U.S. billionaire programmer will carry a paper-tape memento from that first computer and put his faith in the heirs to that Soviet-era technology when he blasts into space aboard a Soyuz rocket to become the world’s fifth space tourist.
“I will take one of those paper tapes with me to remind me where it all started,” Simonyi told reporters Thursday at Russia’s Star City cosmonaut preparation center.
Simonyi’s skill at computers and his work in helping to develop the world’s most commonly used word processing and spreadsheet programs earned him enough money to spare more than $20 million to become the world’s fifth “space tourist,” set to blast off early next month.
Simonyi, 58, will travel to the international space station aboard a Soyuz TMA-10 capsule together with Russian cosmonauts Fyodor Yurchikhin and Oleg Kotov and return to Earth 11 days later with its current crew – Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin and Spanish-born U.S. astronaut Miguel Lopez-Alegria.
U.S. astronaut Sunita Williams is expected to remain on board the station until June, when she is replaced by Clayton Anderson.
Since beginning training at Star City in October, Simonyi, like the other “space tourists” before him, has had to learn to walk and breathe in a cumbersome space suit, use special gas masks, practice helicopter rescues in case of a water landing, and other tasks.
The hardest thing of all, he said, has been spinning in a high-speed rotating chair to help train against dizziness in space – along with learning some Russian. Now that he is finished training, he says he is sure the trip will go without a hitch.
“I am nervous about public appearances and press conferences, but I think that about the flight I am not nervous at all,” the soft-spoken Simonyi said. “I’ve learned about the system and the more I learn, the more sure I am about the backups … and I think it’s perfectly safe.”
His mother needed some reassuring, however, he said.
“My mother is very worried, but very understanding and I think we’ll be all right,” he later told The Associated Press in an interview.
At the station, he will conduct a number of experiments, including measuring radiation levels and studying biological organisms inside the space station.
“He will work responsibly and with full dedication,” said Kotov, who said Simonyi was well-qualified for the trip. “If you look at the program of his flight, he practically doesn’t have spare time.”
Born in Communist Hungary, Simony first leaned computer programming on a Soviet-built computer called Ural-2 – he said he has kept the paper tapes from the computer all this time as a reminder of how dramatically technology has changed. He left his homeland when he was 17 to work as a computer programmer in Denmark and moved to the United States in 1968.
After working for the Xerox Corp. (XRX) in California for eight years, he moved to Microsoft in 1981, where he worked until leaving to found Intentional Software Corp. in 2002 in Bellevue, Wash.
Simonyi follows in the footsteps of Dennis Tito, Mark Shuttleworth, Gregory Olsen, and Anousheh Ansari – all “space flight participants” who have also traveled to the international space station aboard Russian rockets in trips brokered by the U.S.-based company Space Adventures Ltd.
Like all crew members on the orbiting station, Simonyi will be able to phone relatives, write e-mails, contact his support team and even write an Internet blog. He also plans to treat five crew members to a gourmet dinner including wine-roasted quail, duck breast and rice pudding – specially prepared to be consumed in space.
The dinner, which Simonyi said cost him “like a meal at the Four Seasons in New York,” will take place on April 12, when Russia celebrates Cosmonauts Day.
While Simonyi will spend just a few days on the station, the two Russians will spend 190 days in space. Yurchikhin played down the fact that he had never ridden a Soyuz capsule before and that Kotov had never been in space before, saying they were perfectly qualified for the job.
“The answer to that question is very simple – neither Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, nor German Stepanovich Titov … nor the others had had any flight experience,” Yurchikhin said referring to the Soviet cosmonauts who were the first humans in space. “But they fulfilled their task wonderfully.”
Interested in space since childhood, Simonyi hopes the trip will help popularize space science among others, especially children. But he also said he is hoping for an unforgettable experience.
“Space is very much on our minds,” he told AP. “You can fly … the sky is black instead of blue, you can see the globe.”