Q&A with Charles Simonyi: Space trip was "rich, fascinating"
Charles Simonyi is remarkably coherent for someone who traveled 5 million miles over the past two weeks, zooming through space at 17,000...
Seattle Times senior technology reporter
Charles Simonyi is remarkably coherent for someone who traveled 5 million miles over the past two weeks, zooming through space at 17,000 miles per hour.
He called this morning from Star City, the Russian space command center, where he's undergoing standard post-flight rehabilitation with fellow passengers on the Soyuz TMA-9 spacecraft.
The software pioneer, who lives in Medina, landed Saturday after 14 days in orbit, the longest private spaceflight since Virginia-based Space Adventures began arranging for wealthy individuals to travel with astronauts and cosmonauts going to and from the International Space Station.
Simonyi, known as the father of Microsoft Word for his early work on the application software, was the fifth space tourist since the first trip in 2001. He also got the most for his $25 million ticket — his flight was longest yet. His trip was extended by a day so it could land at a different site in Kazakhstan; the original location was too snowy.
Here's an edited transcript of our conversation.
Q: Was it worthwhile?
A: It was absolutely worthwhile. It was great, just so much detail, so much rich, fascinating stuff.
Simonyi in space and on earth
Q: What was most interesting to you, the mechanics of the flight or the flight itself?
A: It all goes together. To me ... it's that understanding of what's going on. I said look, it's just like opera lovers who go to an opera with a score in their hand so they can follow what's going on. Of course, I was a viewer — I wasn't on the stage. I was looking from the side, but I had a score in my hand and I knew what was going on and that made it so much more interesting.
Q: Did you have a chance to just look out the window?
A: You look out the window and what do you see? The Soyuz is rotating as it goes around the Earth. It rotates so it keeps pointing at the sun, so its solar cells get most of the energy. To do that, they spin it very slowly — it does one spin every few minutes. But you look out the window, you see the Earth going every which way. It looks like you are in a giant wheel that's rolling on the top of the Earth. It's a very peculiar view, ever-changing view of the earth. If you don't know what's happening, you wouldn't know what's happening.
Q: Were you ever scared?
A: No. I didn't expect to be. I had fears of failure, of preparation. I certainly did that. But in terms of when we were launching, I was probably the calmest all day.
Q: The trip sounds like a fantastic technology experience. Was it also a spiritual experience for you?
A: I don't think so. If anything I've gotten more optimistic. When I look at the Earth, it's so vast and majestic and calm — those were the adjectives I chose — it makes me optimistic.
Q: Do you now wish you had become a cosmonaut instead of a computer scientist?
A: I can't go that far. My calling is in computers and that's where my strengths are. I didn't go in expecting that somehow I'd become a cosmonaut. These guys are doing stuff that is much more demanding than I was doing.
Q: What do you now think about the potential for commercial space travel?
A: I think that certainly what I went through is very complex and is not a good model for commercial flight. The preparation is just too hard. We also have to remember there's nothing inherent in the spacecraft that makes all these preparations [mandatory]. These are not laws of physics that require preparations. It's just a stage in technology.
Give you an example: Safety in aviation today; we don't make it dependent on parachutes. We worry about safety in aviation, but we know that parachutes aren't going to help; that's not where the issues are.
We talk a lot about spacesuits, for example, and a lot of training has to do with the spacesuit and a lot of difficulties have to do with the spacesuit. But the spacesuit is really not required.
[He explained that parachutes help if the wings fall off, but the decision has been to focus energies on making sure the wings stay on instead of requiring parachutes. Spacesuits are needed in case the spacecraft depressurizes, but perhaps the energy should be focused on ensuring that doesn't happen.]
Q: Will you now get more involved in space ventures and perhaps invest in some of the new private space-flight efforts?
A: I'd like to work on the demand side, not the supply side. I think on the supply side there are great entrepreneurs [such as Amazon.com Chief Executive] Jeff Bezos, who has much more experience in understanding of that side.
What I feel I ought to do, given that I had this privilege of having done it, is just to communicate what it's like. If it generates demand, that's great.
Q: There was gossipy speculation that you and Martha Stewart would be engaged, when she saw you off before the flight. Would you care to discuss?
A: It's wonderful to have friends who support you and it was very important to me. Just before launch the crew was presented with this well-produced DVD that was a complete surprise to me, where family members and friends were having messages for me, and extended family and friends were there. ... It was a great surprise to me and it made the launch just that much easier.
Q: Another rumor floating around was that your friend Bill Gates is interested in taking the same trip.
A : That's typical. The Russian press is notorious for their fabrications.
Q: Does it feel different or strange, being back on Earth?
A: It was at the very beginning, but now, I tell you, there was a strange moment. I had a catnap on the Soyuz because we had a very long day. So I just had a very short nap and I had a dream, just a normal dream of having some problems with the flight suit on the ground. Oleg woke me up, shook me, because we had to do something.
So I finally woke up from this dream and found myself in a spacecraft, a very small spacecraft. I was completely confused. The dream was very normal and real, and reality was very strange and real.
Q: What was the best part of your trip?
A: I don't know about any one. Approaching the space station, that was incredible. I described it as being in this stage set, very theatrical, very unreal. You know when you are in theater there is this business about suspension of disbelief. You know you are in a theater, the lighting, everything else, it evokes the feeling. When you approach the space station it looks like theater. It looks like a stage set, with incredible lighting. It's very unusual.
I saw one of the trusses or solar panels in incredible light of the sunset. The light changes so fast and in such strange colors. It was this purple light of the sunset falling on a truss, a mechancial structure, out in the nowhere, where there's nothing, basically. Unbelievable.
Q: So what is your next adventure?
A: Intentional Software [his Bellevue software company is going to do very well. I consider that a good adventure.
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