Charles Simonyi
Ted S. Warren  /  AP
Charles Simonyi, the only civilian to visit the International Space Station twice, peers through the window of the Soyuz TMA-14 descent module that took him on second trip into space, at the Seattle Museum of Flight’s new space gallery. The gallery is named in Simonyi's honor.
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updated 4/3/2012 11:46:31 AM ET 2012-04-03T15:46:31

Charles Simonyi may still be described as a space tourist even though the Microsoft billionaire has no plans to take a third vacation on the International Space Station and hasn't hung out in outer space for a few years.

He's still obsessed with space and is heavily involved in the Seattle Museum of Flight's new space gallery, which is named in the philanthropist's honor.

Since 2002, Simonyi has been running his own company called Intentional Software that specializes in creating industry-specific computer software, and he recently he took on a new title: book publisher.

The son of a Hungarian physicist, the 63-year-old just made one of his dad's dreams come true by helping translate the senior Simonyi's epic about physics into English.

"A Cultural History of Physics" by Karoly Simonyi, who died in 2001, is a heavy tome with an intimidating name but inside the non-scientist will find lots of pictures and stories that offer a whimsical side of physics.

Flip through the book, which has had five editions in Hungarian and three in German, and you'll find a full-page diagram showing how the scientists of the 17th century enjoyed dismissing each other's theories. A diagram and an explanation by Sir Isaac Newton of how rainbows are formed are on another page.

An illustration of a cat with its hair standing on end may catch your attention toward the end of the book. If you stop to find out why the cat is on the page, you'll find an explanation of quantum mechanics and radioactive decay.

Simonyi says that page is just one of many parts of the book that illustrate his father's sharp sense of humor.

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The project was personal for Simonyi but has elements of other things he does for work and fun: it was a challenge, it's about science and it has the potential to help people learn.

The man who led the Microsoft teams that developed Word and Excel also is great at explaining scientific concepts. From the stories he shares about his father, that's a quality he likely inherited from the former physics professor, who Simonyi says inspired generations of Hungarian electrical engineers.

(Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal. Comcast holds a controlling interest in the latter.)

Charles Simonyi left Hungary at 17, and says his interest in space as a child helped him learn English — two of his first English words were "propellant" and "nozzle." His knowledge of space trivia led him to win a junior astronaut contest at age 13. The prize was a trip to Moscow to meet one of the first cosmonauts, Pavel Popovich.

His next project will be writing a book about his space trips in 2007 and 2009 with Virginia-based Space Adventures, which cost him a total of $60 million. The idea was inspired in part by all the questions he was asked on a website he set up during his space travels called "Charles in Space."

"I love talking about space flight," said Simonyi, who says the privilege of going to space can be measured by the fact that only about 500 people have ever left Earth's atmosphere. "If you've been there, then you kind of have this obligation to tell people about what it's like and share the experience."

Earlier this week, he dropped off a space toilet at the Museum of Flight.

Going to the bathroom in space is quite a bit more complicated than sleeping there, and Simonyi is enthusiastic about sharing all the personal, yet technical, details with anyone curious. He even made a video about the mechanics of bodily functions in zero gravity.

Sleeping is actually easier in space than on earth, Simonyi said.

"You can sleep anywhere in any position — vertical, horizontal or at an angle," he said, adding that he slept in a room where the Russian space suits were kept. "It was out of the way and pretty quiet. I enjoyed it very much."

Thanks to Simonyi, the museum also has one of the Russian Soyuz space capsules he used to ride back to earth from the space station. Simonyi gave $3 million to the museum to help build the space gallery, and has given the Soyuz capsule, a space suit, space toilet and other artifacts to the museum on a long-term loan.

Eventually the small cone-shaped capsule will sit beside the giant U.S. space shuttle trainer, for which the hangar-sized gallery was built.

Simonyi said he never felt claustrophobic on the space station or in the Russian ships to or from the station.

"I find the spacecraft very comfortable, very cozy," he said.

Nothing about the experience was scary, he said, even though he doesn't consider himself much of a daredevil. He is a pilot, flying both jets and helicopters.

He compared the experience of dropping back to earth in the Russian space capsule to snow skiing, from the s-turns the capsule makes as it falls through the atmosphere to the whooshing sound it makes as the air and heat blast off the surface.

Conversely, the idea of riding in a submarine miles beneath the surface of the ocean — like James Cameron did recently — that gives him the willies. "That takes guts," he said.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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