SEATTLE — When former Microsoft developer Charles Simonyi goes into orbit next March, he's not merely aiming to be the first guy from Forbes magazine's billionaire list to fly in space. He also plans to lay claim to the title of "first nerd in space."
Hungarian-born Simonyi, 58, embraced his inner nerd on Thursday during a news conference at the Museum of Flight here, just a couple of days before he goes to Russia's Star City cosmonaut complex for months of training. The preparations will lead up to a 10-day-long mission to the international space station, currently scheduled for launch on March 9.
Simonyi is going where three rich men (and one rich woman) have gone before, but this time the price tag is a bit higher. The standard quote of $20 million is going up to $25 million, and Simonyi is paying a fare somewhere between those two figures, said Eric Anderson, chief executive officer of Virginia-based Space Adventures. Anderson's company has made the arrangements with the Russians for all five of those missions.
Most of those previous fliers have avoided calling themselves "space tourists," fearing that the term implied that they were going on a joyride with no deeper meaning. Like those others, Simonyi said he would be participating in scientific studies, and also would use his space experience to inspire and educate young people.
"I want to share all that I learn with everybody," Simonyi told reporters.
But if you want to call Simonyi a space tourist, that's fine, too. "Overall, his mission is to be a visitor — to enjoy space," Anderson said.
From Hungary to dot-com heights
Simonyi has waited a long time for his chance: On Thursday, he recalled how he obsessed over space lore while growing up in Hungary, memorizing the names of the dogs sent into orbit during the early years of the Soviet space effort. In 1963, such fandom helped him win a prize in a "junior cosmonaut" contest: a trip to Moscow to meet some real cosmonauts.
But Simonyi's biggest claim to fame came as a computer scientist and software engineer rather than a would-be astronaut: He emigrated to the United States in 1968, at the height of the Cold War, and played a huge role in promoting WYSIWYG ("what you see is what you get") approaches to software design. In 1981, he joined Microsoft and oversaw the development of some of the company's biggest products, such as Word and Excel. (Microsoft is a partner in the MSNBC.com joint venture.)
Simonyi retired from Microsoft in 2002 and now serves as president and chief executive officer of Intentional Software, based in Bellevue, Wash. He is also a philanthropist, making multimillion-dollar contributions through his Charles Simonyi Fund for Arts and Sciences.
This year, Forbes estimated his net worth at $1 billion, putting him 746th on its list of 793 billionaires around the world. Space Adventures' past orbital clients — California investment adviser Dennis Tito (2001), South African dot-com tycoon Mark Shuttleworth (2002), New Jersey physicist-businessman Greg Olsen (2005) and Iranian-American venture capitalist Anousheh Ansari (2006) — aren't on the list.
Although the unmarried Simonyi said he saw himself as the "first nerd in space" — which is a judgment call, to be sure — he does get around. In the past, the gossip pages have linked him with controversial domestic diva Martha Stewart. He's also a licensed pilot with more than 2,000 hours of flight time in planes and helicopters under his belt, and reportedly owns one of the largest private yachts in America.
Agenda for the space trip
Simonyi is to visit the space station during a short-term "taxi mission," in which one Russian-built Soyuz craft is switched out for another. He would ride up from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan with two Russians, Fyodor Yurchikhin and Oleg Kotov, spend about a week on the station, then ride down with two returning station crew members, NASA's Michael Lopez-Alegria and Russia's Mikhail Tyurin.
The billionaire signed up for the trip several months ago , and since then, he's passed the Russian medical exams with flying colors, Anderson said. That puts Simonyi far ahead of Japanese entrepreneur Daisuke Enomoto, who had to give way to Ansari, his backup, when he was judged medically unfit for flight. Anderson said no backup has been designated for Simonyi.
Simonyi said he was in talks with space agencies about his participation in experiments on the health effects of spaceflight — for example, studies into bone stresses that are similar to osteoporosis on Earth. Space Adventures recently began offering a $15 million option for a spacewalk, but Simonyi said he didn't have enough time to train for such an outing.
His educational efforts would be focused on a newly established Web site — CharlesInSpace.com — and Simonyi also intended to leave behind a couple of books for the space station's small library: Robert Heinlein's "The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress" and Goethe's "Faust," in German and English.
Thursday's briefing also touched upon the risks surrounding spaceflight, of course. Simonyi said he was reassured by the Soyuz spacecraft's stellar safety record.
"The safety of the spacecraft I'm flying is incredibly good, and the more I learn about the system, the more I understand why that is, it just increases my faith that it will be an incredible mission," he said.
He said he has also worked with the other members of his executive team at Intentional Software to get his affairs in order. "We have taken the appropriate steps, and I can assure them ... that the affairs are in order and the business will continue," he said.
As for the $20 million-plus cost of the flight, Simonyi said he hoped his trip would eventually stimulate the spaceflight market to the point that even non-millionaires could afford to go into orbit. He cited an example from his own career, noting that laser printers started out costing half a million dollars but now could be had for $300 or so.
In those early days, "a personal laser printer was really out of the question, so you have to do these things on the basis of hope," he said.
Anderson agreed that more suppliers would have to enter the orbital spaceflight market before the price could come down. "Because of people like Charles, there are entrepreneurs out there, in the United States, who are investing hundreds of millions of dollars to service the future market for orbital space tourism," he said.
"It'll never be $20,000 or $25,000 unless it starts out at $20 million or $25 million," Anderson said.
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