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May 23, 2007 at 5:58 PM

Simonyi’s return to Seattle

Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times

Charles Simonyi speaks presents Museum of Flight director Bonnie Dunbar a glove he wore and part of one of the parachutes used to slow the space capsule he rode.

The shiny space station module that’s part of Museum of Flight’s upcoming space exhibition is nothing like the real space station, according to Charles Simonyi, who lived there for 11 days last month.

“It was nothing like this sterile area, especially the Russian segment,” he said. “Everything [there] is covered with velcro. It bears the stains of many lunches and dinners beforehand.”

That didn’t detract from the experience, though, and actually made him feel safer knowing how long the station had been functioning.

I asked Simonyi to show me around the module during an interview after his welcome home ceremony today at the Museum of Flight. I was the first in line for a series of one-on-one interviews but other reporters liked my choice of venue and shoved into the station as well.

No wonder Simonyi said press conferences were one of the few times he was nervous during his space adventure.

Simonyi was polite and candid with reporters, but he was more enthusiastic talking to the Cub Scouts and high school students from Redmond who attended the ceremony and politely took turns asking him questions.

Among the students was Thomas Spencer, a Redmond senior who spoke to Simonyi via radio during the space trip and then in person at the museum. I asked if he wants to visit space as well.

“I’m sure everyone wants to go into space,” Spencer replied.

Here’s an edited sample of Simonyi’s question and answer session with the scouts, students and reporters:

Q: How was the rehabilitation and what exercises did you do?

A: I had two problems, one with the vestibular system. I was walking funny, maybe falling over. Swimming was a good exercise because if you are swimming you can’t fall over and injure yourself.

Another problem was orthostatic tolerance; blood tends to go to the feet and deprives the brain of much needed exercise.

Doctors say you have to be rehabilitated for as long a period as you were in space. I was in space two weeks. Imagine the people who were up there for six months. They have much greater needs than I did.

Q: How high could you jump in the space station?

A: You can jump as high as you want. If you push yourself, you will continue going, nothing will stop you. You have to be careful about not pushing yourself too fast because whatever speed you push yourself, that’s the speed with which you’re going to arrive at the other end. Also, you stop yourself with your arms, and your arms are not as strong as your legs so you have to be really careful.

Q: What was the best part of going to space?

A: Going up was very exciting, staying on the space station was very exicitng, coming back was very exicting. This whole experience just as a whole was great.

Q: How was training before you went into space?

A: Training was very hard. It took six months. During the training they prepare you for the worst case. You were doing it in the gravity of the Earth.

Q: I know there’s a disease you can get from coming back to earth, the shock of having gravity?

A: It’s really not a disease. What happens is that when you go to space you get a shock because you’re in a new environment; you don’t have gravity. The fluids in your body shift. You come back to Earth, you have to get used to the Earth again so it’s just the same thing — a space sickness but in reverse. It’s called a sickness but it really isn’t, it’s just a matter of adaptation.

Q: How long do you have to study to become an astronaut?

A: It depends on whether you want to be a professional or a space flight participant, otherwise known as a toursist. To be a professional, 10 years.

For me it was a little bit more than six moths, but I had to do it day and night. I was living there and that was the focus of my life.

Q: How was it when you were sleeping in space?

A: It was very pleasant. We were sleeping in sleeping bags. We string them up like a hammock, fly into them and zip ourselves up and it’s very cozy and very pleasant.

Q: Did you sense the fragility of Earth from up there?

A: I don’t think going to space is the the way to see that. You see Earth in its totality. It’s so quiet and so majestic, it’s hard to see the fragility. Maybe if you had a very big telescope.

In space the Earth looks as big as the sky looks from here — essentialy it’s the same color. It’s this beautiful blue with the clouds on it.

Q: Was the food different on the space station?

A. No. We had chicken and an omelet — that was my first breakfast, apple juice from a carton. The food is really the same and tastes the same as on Earth. The food that we got, that was mostly mashed potatos and a kind of stew, meat stews and gelatin. They were just like on Earth.

Q: Did you eat a lot of Russian food?

A: Absolutely, food such as dehydrated borscht, which I like very much.

Q: What was your most nervous moment?

A: There were a couple of nervous moments and they all had to do with the preparation — when I was plugged into a machine telling how nervous I was and press conferences.

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