A former software developer at Microsoft could make a trip to the international space station next year aboard a Russian rocket ship, the RIA news agency reported Monday.
Hungarian-born Charles Simonyi, who was one of the key developers behind applications such as Microsoft Word and Excel, would become the world's fifth paying space passenger. (MSNBC is a Microsoft-NBC joint venture.)
"A preliminary contract with Simonyi has been concluded for spring 2007," Alexei Krasnov, head of manned spaceflight programs at Russia's Federal Space Agency, told RIA.
The published price for such flights is $20 million.
In a news release issued late Monday, Virginia-based Space Adventures confirmed that Simonyi signed a contract for a future flight but held back from specifying a training schedule or launch date.
"Like with any long-term plan, I had to make reservations," Space Adventures quoted Simonyi as saying. "A lot of training and work remains to be done before such a flight can be consummated. My immediate goal for the flight would be to study Russian and American engineering approaches and to learn from the experience."
Simonyi said that he had always dreamed of flying in space.
"I consider my future flight to be a small part of an important trend to make space accessible to more people, not just to experts," he said in the release. "I am very much in favor of commercial space travel, which promises to advance technology just like commercial aviation did many years ago."
Soyuz sojournersThe multimillion-dollar tour package meshes with the twice-yearly Soyuz trips to the space station. The passenger rides up into orbit alongside two professional astronauts in the Soyuz capsule. After about a week in orbit, the passenger returns to Earth with the homeward-bound space station crew.
California millionaire Dennis Tito was the first to take such a trip, back in 2001, followed by South African Internet tycoon Mark Shuttleworth in 2002 and New Jersey scientist-entrepreneur Greg Olsen in 2005. Japanese entrepreneur Daisuke "Dice-K" Enomoto is currently in training for a flight to the space station and is expected to fly later this year.
Russia can also sell spare seats on its spacecraft to government space agencies. Brazil's first astronaut, Marcos Pontes, arrived at the space station on Saturday under just such an arrangement.
Billionaire, CEO, philanthropist
Simonyi, 57, is listed on Forbes magazine's survey of billionaires, with an estimated net worth of $1 billion. He retired from Microsoft in 2002 to co-found Intentional Software, where he serves as president and chief executive officer. In Monday's statement, Simonyi said his "primary focus" would remain with Intentional Software.
Simonyi also has established the Charles Simonyi Fund for Arts and Sciences, which has donated millions to organizations ranging from the Metropolitan Opera to the Seattle Public Library to Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study. The foundation's executive director, Susan Hutchison, told MSNBC.com that Simonyi's space activities would not affect those philanthropic activities.
Simonyi, a Seattle-area resident, is an experienced pilot. He has also been romantically linked with domestic magnate Martha Stewart in the gossip columns. Simonyi accompanied Stewart on a recent zero-gravity flight, and in a narrated video of the outing, she referred to Simonyi as "my friend Charles."
At one point in the video, Simonyi could be seen dancing in weightlessness with Stewart. "Charles is a great dancer — he's never danced quite like that before," Stewart said in her narration.
This report includes information from Reuters and MSNBC.com's Alan Boyle and James Oberg. Image courtesy of Brian Smale Photography.