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February 18, 2009 at 9:00 PM

Charles Simonyi chats about spaceflight 2.0, marriage and Kindles in space

During a break in his training regimen today, Charles Simonyi called from Russia and gave an update on his next flight to space, married life and plans to remodel his Medina mansion.


(This photo is courtesy of Simonyi and Space Adventures)

Simonyi, the former Microsoft executive known as “the father of Word,” is scheduled to make his second trip the International Space Station next month, becoming the first commercial space traveler to make multiple trips.

The Hungarian-born Medina resident announced in September that he’d fill an open spot on a trip arranged by Space Adventures, the Virginia-based company that also arranged his 2007 trip.

It contracts with the Russian space agency to fly well heeled tourists aboard Soyuz rockets to the space station.

Simonyi’s trip may be the last for awhile because Russian space officials last month said they’re going to start using all the seats for crew members instead. Space Adventures hopes to continue with private flights in 2011 and has reservations from the likes of Google co-founder Sergey Brin.

Meanwhile Simonyi’s been busy. In late November he married Lisa Persdotter, a 28-year-old Swedish socialite and investment manager, then began space training Jan. 10 at Star City outside Moscow.

“I decided on flying before we got engaged and she said yes to both,” he said.

When he gets back, he’ll have a honey-do list: Persdotter is fine living at his house on Lake Washington, Simonyi said, but there will be some remodeling. They’ll also live part-time at a new house she’s building in Sweden.

Training continues until March 26, when he’s scheduled to liftoff at 11:48:53, Moscow time. The trip will be 13 days long on spacecraft number 13, but Simonyi said he’s not superstitious.

Simonyi expects the Russians to stick to the schedule. While watching the last launch, in November, he bet a friend $1,000 (“for charity,” he added) that they’d take off within two seconds of the scheduled time and won.

“It was a sucker bet,” he said, explaining that he was familiar with the reliability of the Russian program’s logistics.

Because he’s traveled to space within the last two years, Simonyi’s going through abbreviated training, plus a refresher course in Russian.

He’s also expecting to be able to do more experiments on the space station, now that he knows his way around. On the list are tests of his blood and bone mass – space flight accelerates calcium loss in bones, and the data will be used in osteoporosis reseach – and measuring the environment within the space station.

Here are some excerpts from our conversation:

Are you ready for the trip?

“I’m looking at this as a continuation of the previous one. It’s like you learn to ride your bicycle, you get your drivers license and what you really want to do is drive. There’s a lot of difference between people who have been to space and have the experience and people who are new to space. There’s a learning curve that’s a week or more.

So you’ll be able do more scientific experiments on the space station?

I think I’ll be able to be efficient, and be able to do the experiments well from day one as opposed to fumbling through, learning to get around, learning the simple acts of performing tasks, holding things down and not letting things get lost all the time. I think I’ll be able to do a much better job than the first time.

Are you nervous, or feel that you’re taking more chances with a second trip?

No certainly not. I think there’s a certain amount of pressure of doing things faster, doing things better, but no I’m not nervous.

Do you think yours will be the last commercial space trip?

I haven’t had time to follow it in great detail. I feel very fortunate. There are certainly other doors that are closing for me – the most important being the wife saying no to future spaceflights. If I don’t fly now it would be a much bigger training schedule, because of the training not being current. I’m not getting any younger.

Really, I think that these pronouncements (about Russia ending space tourism this year) are relatively short term, for the next decade or maybe the next few years. For the long term, I think it’s pretty obvious that civilian space flight will be a key part of the space effort.

Will you be involved in the business?

Yes to the extent of communicating my experience. No to investment or direct involvement. I have my computer industry that has been good to me and I have a lot to accomplish there.

Are you concerned about debris from the recent satellite collision?

No, it’s in a different orbit. It’s amazing it could happen, when you just look at it mathematically. The airspace so to speak that is occupied by the space station is watched very carefully. These other satellites were in uncontrolled airpsace. It points out that the airspace that is important to us should be watched very carefully.

I understand this trip will cost more $35 million, versus around $25 million the last time?

The costs are going up – both the manufacturing costs and the demand are going up. It’s a short term phenomenon. Short term in this business means maybe a decade but it’s another of those doors that is closing in. For a couple of years the only way to space for anyone, government or private, American or Russian, maybe except for the Chinese, was though the sSoyuz.

Will you do more school and educational programs on this trip?

One of the things that I’ve learned that is working really well is the communication through the amateur radio, both with ham operators and especially with schools, so we’ll do more of the school program.

Will you continue living in Medina, now that you’ve married a Swede?

We have to do some changes in the interior of the house but I think yeah, it’s a very attractive place. She started to build a house (in Sweden) before the engagement. We’ll continue to have another place.

Your Medina house was kind of the ultimate bachelor pad ….

I’m disappointed how much of a bachelor pad it really turned out to be. But it’s never too late to fix it.

Will you take more books to the space station library?

I decided not to. I want to see if the old ones are still there. It’s not easy to find things – I know exactly where it was a year and a half ago. It’s really a Kindle the space station needs.

So you have a Kindle?

I do but it’s not qualified for the space station – they’re very nervous about electronics and especially software. I’m not going to be the one that pays for qualification.

The battery really is what makes them the most nervous, if the battery might burst into flames. Not just because of the Kindle but in general – every little camera. I’m taking up a Canon 900 – one of those very small cameras – and it has to be exactly the same model I took last time so it won’t have to be requalified again.

What will you do to make mark this time?

I’m not trying to make a mark. I will be a little bit more prepared and leave my personal patch on board. Last time I didn’t leave a patch – I didn’t know you should take a patch.

You have a personal spacesuit patch?

Yes. It quotes Goethe, from “Faust”: “the eternal feminine draws us upward.” The space station is the eternal feminine of course.

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