American billionaire Charles Simonyi snagged his history-making second space tourist trip to the space station next year thanks to an elite club that gives its members first dibs on private spaceflight seats.
Simonyi, 60, is paying about $35 million to launch to the space station in spring 2009 aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft on a spaceflight that will come two years after his first $25 million flight. He's flying again under a deal between Russia's Federal Space Agency and the Vienna, Va.-based firm Space Adventures.
It was through Space Adventures' Orbital Missions Explorers Circle program that Simonyi nabbed his second trip to space. The elite six-person club requires a $5 million deposit and gives its members first pick at new space tourist seats as they become available, though it does depend on the order in which they signed up, Space Adventures officials told SPACE.com.
Simonyi said he was second in line after Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who announced his intention to fly in space in June but passed on the open seat next spring.
"I'm very thankful for this opportunity that Space Adventures has presented to me for the spring 2009 seat," Simonyi told reporters in a Monday teleconference, adding that he joined the Explorers Circle earlier this summer. "There were others who were interested, but I was able to secure it through this circle."
Space Adventures is the only firm currently offering tickets to orbit and the space station. Among other space-themed thrills, the company offers orbital spaceflights aboard Russian spacecraft with the option for a spacewalk for about $15 million. To date, no private space tourists have performed a spacewalk since they became available in 2006 and Simonyi doesn't plan to pursue one.
"I decided against doing a spacewalk," Simonyi said, adding that the physical demands and extensive training time required made it infeasible. "I don't think I have the time and frankly, I'm not enough of an athlete to undertake that."
Simonyi said he will watch firsthand as Space Adventure's next ticket holder, American computer game developer Richard Garriott, launches into orbit on Oct. 12 at 3:03 a.m. EDT (0703 GMT) aboard a Russian Soyuz TMA-13 spacecraft from the Central Asian spaceport of Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. That particular Soyuz spacecraft, Simonyi added, will be his trip home next year.
"I'm looking forward to see the crew that I'm coming down with and a launch is always an exciting event," Simonyi said. "It's quite a bit different than looking at it from the inside and I think that will be an interesting comparison."
A return to orbit
Simonyi last flew to the space station in April 2007 on a record-setting 13-day spaceflight that made him the fifth person ever to pay for a ticket to the orbiting laboratory.
He performed a series of experiments while chronicling his experience via video, audio and text messages on his Web site charlesinspace.com, and expects to do the same for his second spaceflight. Reaching out to the public to support interest in science education and space exploration are vital, he added.
"The experience of spaceflight is so unique and so amazing," Simonyi said. "I really want to be able to absorb it and experience it at a different level that only a second experience would allow."
A native of Hungary, Simonyi is a former Microsoft software developer and co-founder of Intentional Software Corp. He is an avid pilot and said before his first spaceflight that reaching space was a lifelong dream. When he was 13 years old, he represented Hungary as a Junior Astronaut during a trip to Moscow.
"I am ecstatic that Dr. Simonyi would choose to fly again and become a repeat customer," said Eric Anderson, president and chief executive of Space Adventures, told reporters.
After this month's flight by Garriott and Simonyi's launch next year, Space Adventures is planning to launch two private spaceflyers into orbit in 2011 in what will be the first completely privately funded Soyuz mission to the space station.
Meanwhile, the firm will turn its attention to Garriott's launch on Sunday. He will blast off alongside two professional astronauts to replace station crewmembers currently in space.
Garriott, the son of retired NASA astronaut Owen Garriot, will be the first second-generation American spaceflyer when he blasts off and has a packed slate of science experiments, observations and education events on tap for his mission.
He will return to Earth on Oct. 24 (EDT) with returning Russian cosmonauts Sergei Volkov - the world's first second generation spaceflyer - and Oleg Kononenko. Volkov, the station's commander, and flight engineer Kononenko are completing a six-month mission to the station.