Star City, Russia: Decades before helping to write the computer programmes that led to Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel, Charles Simonyi learned the basics of programming on a clunky Soviet-era computer called Ural-2.
Next month, the US billionaire programmer will carry a paper-tape memento from that first computer and put his faith in the heirs to that Soviet-era technology when he blasts into space aboard a Soyuz rocket to become the world’s fifth space tourist.
“I will take one of those paper tapes with me to remind me where it all started,” Simonyi told reporters at Russia’s Star City cosmonaut preparation centre on 22 March.
Simonyi’s skill at computers and his work in helping to develop the world’s most commonly used word processing and spreadsheet programs earned him enough money to spare more than US$20 million to become the world’s fifth “space tourist”, set to blast off early next month.
Simonyi, 58, will travel to the international space station aboard a Soyuz TMA-10 capsule together with Russian cosmonauts Fyodor Yurchikhin and Oleg Kotov and return to Earth 11 days later with its current crew Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin and Spanish-born US astronaut Miguel Lopez-Alegria.
US astronaut Sunita Williams is expected to remain on board the station until June, when she is replaced by Clayton Anderson.
Since beginning training at Star City in October, Simonyi, like the other “space tourists” before him, has had to learn to walk and breathe in a cumbersome space suit, use special gas masks, practice helicopter rescues in case of a water landing and other tasks.
The hardest thing of all, he said, has been spinning in a high-speed rotating chair to help train against dizziness in space along with learning some Russians. Now that he is done training, he says he is sure the trip will go without a hitch.
“I am nervous about public appearances and press conferences, but I think that about the flight I am not nervous at all,” the soft-spoken Simonyi said. “I’ve learned about the system and the more I learn, the more sure I am about the backups and I think it’s perfectly safe.”
His mother needed some reassuring, however, he said.
“My mother is very worried, but very understanding and I think we’ll be all right,” he later told The Associated Press in an interview.
At the station, he will conduct a number of experiments, including measuring radiation levels and studying biological organisms inside the space station.
“He will work responsibly and with full dedication,” said Kotov, who said Simonyi was well-qualified for the trip. “If you look at the programme of his flight, he practically doesn’t have spare time.”
Born in Communist Hungary, Simony first leaned computer programming on a Soviet-built computer called Ural-2. He said he has kept the paper tapes from the computer all this time as a reminder of how dramatically technology has changed. He left his homeland when he was 17 to work as a computer programmer in Denmark and moved to the US in 1968.
After working for the Xerox Corp. in California for eight years, he moved to Microsoft in 1981, where he worked until leaving to found Intentional Software Corp. in 2002 in Bellevue, Washington.
Simonyi follows in the footsteps of Dennis Tito, Mark Shuttleworth, Gregory Olsen, and Anousheh Ansari, all “space flight participants” who have also traveled to the international space station aboard Russian rockets in trips brokered by the US-based company Space Adventures Ltd.
Like all crew members on the orbiting station, Simonyi will be able to phone relatives, write e-mails, contact his support team and even write an Internet blog. He also plans to treat five crew members to a gourmet dinner inlcluding wine-roasted quail, duck breast and rice pudding specially prepared to be consumed in space.
While Simonyi will spend just a few days on the station, the two Russian cosmonauts will spend 190 days in space. Yurchikhin downplayed the fact that he had never ridden a Soyuz capsule before and that Kotov had never been in space before, saying they were perfectly qualified for the job.