Antoine Lambroschini/ AFP
Billionaire software programmer Charles Simonyi is set to rocket into space on 7 April in a flight to the International Space Station (ISS) that will make him the world’s fifth space tourist.
The 58-year-old Simonyi, who was born in Hungary and made his fortune as a pioneer at US software giant Microsoft, will spend 10 days on the station conducting experiments, blogging, and at least part of the time, marvelling at how far he has come.
Simonyi will bring with him a paper ribbon containing a program he wrote on the 1960s Soviet-made Ural-2 computer, as he said, “to remind me where it all began.”
Like any good guest, he’ll also have a treat for his hosts on the ISS: a special space meal he will prepare for them on 12 April, Cosmonaut’s Day.
Simonyi is set to blast off at 1731 GMT Saturday from the space centre here with Russian cosmonauts Fyodor Yurchikhin and Oleg Kotov. Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov will see them off, as will about 50 of the programmer’s friends.
The three space travellers spent a two-week quarantine in Baikonur after a month of training— and a crash-course in Russian for Simonyi— at Star City, a space mission preparation centre near Moscow.
The flight, which cost Simonyi around $25 million, will be far more than a pleasure trip. Between snapping shots of Earth, he will be conducting medical experiments for the European Space Agency and testing high-definition cameras for the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency.
He plans to spend his free time detailing his experiences in a blog at www.charlesinspace.com. The site already contains daily accounts of his training sessions, as well as information and games “for future generations of space explorers.”
At a walk around the Baikonur space centre this week, Simonyi said he had been thrilled to find a piece of his programming past there.
“At the Baikonur museum they have a Ural-1, which is almost like a Ural-2.... I kind of thought that the circle is closed, that we’re back to the future, and I think it’s great.”
His passion for the stars seized him only recently as he watched rocket launches at the US space centre in Cape Canaveral.
As a teenage computer programmer, Simonyi’s greatest ambition had been to get out of Hungary and emigrate to the West.He succeeded in 1968, at the age of 20, when he enrolled in the prestigious University of California-Berkeley and studied engineering and mathematics. His path to fortune was laid in 1981, when he was hired by Microsoft — then a scrappy young company — and helped design the benchmark Word and Excel programmes.He later received US citizenship, and in 2002 quit Microsoft to found his own firm, Intentional Software.
Already adept at piloting airplanes and helicopters, Simonyi said he was not sure what would strike him more — the sight of the blue planet from space or the feeling of weightlessness.
He is scheduled to return to Earth on 20 April together with the current ISS team — Russia’s Mikhail Tyurin and American Miguel Lopez-Alegria — while his companions stay on for a 190-day shift in orbit.
Simonyi will be the fifth tourist to travel to the ISS, following the United States’ Dennis Tito (2001) and Greg Olsen (2005), South Africa’s Mark Shuttleworth (2002) and an American of Iranian origin, Anousheh Ansari (2006).