The Trip Was So Nice, He’s Going Up Twice: Q&A With a Billionaire Space Tourist

In April 2007, Charles Simonyi became the fifth space tourist to visit the International Space Station. Soon, he’ll be the first to make two trips

Charles Simonyi, a computer software executive most famous for leading the development of Microsoft Word and Excel in the 1980s, announced in September 2008 that he had booked a second flight with Space Adventures, currently the only company providing orbital space tourist flights to the International Space Station (ISS). Simonyi is currently training for the upcoming flight, which is scheduled to launch on March 25, 2009. He will join Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka and NASA astronaut Mike Barratt, both members of Expedition 19 to the space station. The crew will ride to the ISS in the Russian spacecraft Soyuz TMA-14.

I caught up with Charles in between his training for a little chat about his upcoming trip.

Q. What inspired you to travel to space a second time?

A. I visited Star City a number of times after the first flight and I was just inspired by talking to the people who have been up there multiple times, especially Sergei Krikalyov, who has logged more than 800 days in space. I had this idea that maybe I'd like to go again, and when the opportunity came, I seized on it.

Charles Simonyi Prepares for Space

Courtesy of Space Adventures and Charles Simonyi

Q. How much will these two trips cost, in total?

A. The list prices were $25 and $35 million for the two trips.

Q. Worth every penny?

A. It is a pretty good deal considering NASA has ordered a number of flights for $37 million.

Q. What kind of training/conditioning do you have to go through?

A. Well, the nice thing about the second flight is that since it's happening within two years from the first, the training is abbreviated. It is three months as opposed to six to eight months. Much of what I learned the first time around is still valid, and considered current.

What we are really doing is a lot of physical conditioning, Russian language, and simulations with the crew. We are doing one of the first big simulations tomorrow [February 11th]. I'm flying with one Russian [Gennady Padalka, commander] and one NASA astronaut [Mike Barratt, flight engineer]. The simulation is called Typical Day on the Space Station. All three of us have different orders: some observation, some maintenance, and sometimes there are emergency drills, like medical emergencies, to prepare us for the worst-case while in orbit.

For example, I may have to do some scheduled tests to measure my blood pressure—it could be as simple as that. But in space, you have to find the instrument, use the instrument, take down the result. And you are trying to do it in a limited space with people around you. So it is important to practice these things before you are in space.

Q. Have you developed any personal rituals in preparation for launch, especially since this is your second time up?

A. Well, that is a good point. I think I would follow the established rituals. I believe in rituals. In the book The Little Prince, one of the lines is you must have rituals. So I will of course follow established rituals and perhaps add some personal flavor.

One ritual I will have is that I will take my wife's mascot, which is a stuffed seal. She's had it since she was a baby. Astronauts take up a mascot that can float around, which helps show that we are weightless. Everything is strapped in when you arrive in orbit, so it is nice to have something that is loose to help say that you have arrived. Having this toy kind of hanging there and floating, that is a very nice sight.

Charles Simonyi Zero Gravity

Courtesy of Space Adventures and Charles Simonyi

Q. How much will you interact with the cosmonauts and astronauts on the ISS? Will they let you help them out on any projects?

A. I certainly hope so. I'm just starting to work with my colleagues, and they are just a terrific bunch. Both Gennady Padalka and Mike Barrat are incredibly well-trained and highly thought-of cosmonauts and astronauts, and I certainly hope that they let me help with some of the maintenance. I am trained, for example, to do some of the plumbing jobs. I think it would be a privilege to help with maintenance.

Q. It is my understanding that you are an amateur HAM radio operator, and that during your first mission you spoke with schools from the ISS. Can you talk about your HAM radio experience from your previous trip? Do you plan on doing that again and, if so, who are you planning to contact?

A. Yes, we are expanding that. It worked so great the first time. Frankly, I was not a HAM enthusiast before the first flight. But through the training, I saw what an active social group the HAM people are. It is the HAM volunteers that support the idea of contacting classes in elementary schools, where kids can ask questions about space, so it is a way of bringing the joy of science to kids.

The schools sign up for a particular time through ARISS [Amateur Radio on the International Space Station], that is run from Houston at the Johnson Space Center. It might be 11 o' clock in the morning in Virginia in a school at which time the space station is over someplace like Australia where it is maybe 2:00 AM, and there is a HAM volunteer who actually makes the contact, and uses a phone line to contact the school. So it is the worldwide volunteer network that makes such a program possible.

HAM radio is very inexpensive, it is nearly unlimited and free to use. The only limitation is that you can only talk for five minutes to any given person because the station gets out of range within that time. So the sessions are pretty short, but they are sweet because you can typically answer kids' questions in just a few minutes and incorporate scientific facts within those questions.

Q. I've read that you are planning to conduct scientific experiments during your time at the ISS. What sort of experiments?

A. They are not my own; they are experiments that need to get done but fall to me because the astronauts' time is so valuable. Some of the experiments are truly simple, and I am more of a subject than an active participant. But you can do a lot of good medical research just by people looking at your bones before and after the flight to see if there is bone loss. Osteoporosis and the causes and effects can be researched because in space it is much worse, much accelerated. As you know, the more data points the scientists have, the better the results. So just volunteering to be a subject is in itself a contribution.

Basically, most good science in space flight has to do with the behavior of the human body in space. That is where we are lacking info, and where info can only be obtained by flying in space. Other scientific experimentation [in space] can be done by unmanned spacecraft.

Q. What did you miss the most from home when you were up in space the first time?

A. You know, I mentioned the cold beer as something before. But frankly I was referring to anything cold. We only had tepid water on the station, but since then the station has extended quite a bit. Now there is a fridge on the station, so I think we'll have cold drinks this time. It is in the American section and I have no claims on it, but I am sure my American friends will offer me some. Maybe I can return the favor by giving them some borscht.

Q. Were there any difficulties in adjusting, either physically or mentally, to life on the ISS the first time you went up? How about when you came back down?

A. I was very lucky. There are difficulties. There is a symptom called Space Adaptation Syndrome, and I did not suffer from that. That is part of the study of the human body that can be done while in space—there is still a mystery as to what is causing this, and there are many theories, but we need to do more experimentation.

I followed the Russian regimen for preparing for flight, but from medical trials it is never clear whether it is because I followed this regimen that I was symptom-free, or because of some other reason. But that is why we need more experimentation

When I came back, I went through the standard rehabilitation. The Russians believe you need one day for every two days in space. I was up for a little over two weeks and I was out of rehab in four days. Rehab is mostly swimming, taking it easy. When you return from space, it is a little bit like being drunk. It isn't so much the gravity, but the vestibular system. Your sense of balance is a little bit off.

Swimming is a good exercise because you can't hurt yourself by falling. You can make an exertion without hurting yourself. Also, in the Russian regimen, you are wearing a corset for a day or two to prevent the blood from pooling in your lower extremities. But after four days I was perfectly fine and I went back to a normal life.

Q: Is it correct that you represented Hungary as a junior Cosmonaut when you were 13 years old, and won a trip to Moscow to meet Pavel Popovich, who was one of Russia's first Cosmonauts? At that time, did you have dreams of going into space?

A. That was a completely different world. It was a world based on secrecy, which frustrated me to no end. Frankly, I thought I'd never see the spacecraft or the rocket that takes it into orbit. Just meeting the person who goes into space was such a privilege. A lot has changed since then. Fortunately, Mr. Popovich is still alive and healthy. I met him when I came back from space the first time; he was at the celebration of my crewmates and myself, and he was very friendly and acknowledged our meeting. I'm sure he had only a vague recollection of it, but I had his signature and the postcard he sent me. Back then, cosmonauts were like movie stars or rock stars. When you look at the equipment that they use, you know that they were real heroes. Right now, of course, it is completely different. They have been in flight so many times, and it has improved so much, that it is really incredibly reliable.