How does one decide to visit space? Well for starters, if you're software guru Charles Simonyi, it helps to have $25 million to burn. But until recently, no private citizen even had such an option. Rare people with the "right stuff" could dedicate their lives to becoming astronauts and cosmonauts and compete for the crew assignments, but the decision of who would fly always rested with the respective space organizations. Then along came Eric Anderson, a young aerospace engineer who cofounded Space Adventures, making it possible for nonastronauts to buy "taxi" seats aboard Russian spacecraft and travel to the International Space Station. Simonyi is one such nonastronaut. What is it like for a layman to go into space? What sort of training does one have to go through? And is it really worth 25 big ones? Simonyi, who wrote this week's Turning Points column was on hand to answer your questions about his experience with space tourism on Thursday, Dec. 6.
Wilton, CT: Do you think that you'll ever visit Mars or any other planet? Would you want to?
Charles Simonyi: One never knows what may happen in the next 50 years. Visiting asteroids might be actually simpler. But a lot would have to change - better energy sources, artificial gravity (for example by spinning), radiation shielding. It will be a very difficult undertaking for any person, let alone a senior civilian.
Memphis, Tenn.: Did you barf during your flight?
Charles Simonyi: I was lucky in that I did not get space sick, possibly because of the Russian training in the vestibular chair and with other exercises and because I wore tourniquets on my legs. I did not take anti-seasickness drugs, either. My crewmates did not get sick either, which helped a lot, too.
Brooklyn, NY: What did you think of the Russian space equipment? Did it seem outdated and obsolete or new and technologically advanced?
Charles Simonyi: The equipment is "outdated", but exudes robustness and reliability in the sense an old Cessna airplane would. It would be rated "best buy" in a survey, I am sure.
Anonymous: Since the launch of Space Adventures, do you think space travel will become more common to nonastronauts in the future? Will everyone eventually have the opportunity to buy a ride in space?
Charles Simonyi: No doubt it will be more common, especially for suborbital flights (15 minute hops) that require less than 5% of the energy of an orbital flight. If you look ahead 100 years, I am sure it will be as common as air travel is today.
Brooklyn, NY: Just how rigid were the physical requirements for going into space and how did you train?
Charles Simonyi: I think it was more mental than physical - one had to be pretty healthy of course so that there would be no chance of my becoming a burden to the mission. I trained with regular exercise: weights, situps, and a lot of swimming. Most of all, they wanted to avoid exercise related injuries.
New York, NY: Has your trip into "outer space" changed your opinions about our world in anyway, including thoughts about preserving our planet's environment?
Charles Simonyi: I do not think one has to go to space to appreciate the beauty of our world and the need to keep it clean. But, when one sees that vast blue suface, as big as the sky is from the ground, it is truly breathtaking.
Brooklyn, NY: Could you please talk a little about your interactions with the Russian space crew?
Charles Simonyi: I enjoyed very much learning about Russia, learning enough Russian to appreciate its depth and beauty and making friends with Russians - the crewmates, of course, but also the instructors, and engineers. My crewmates Oleg and Fyodor just came back because they stayed for 6 months, and we are planneing a reunion. They speak excellent English but like to use Russian too, especially for emphasis.
Denton, TX: Would you do it again?
Did it make you think differently about extraterrestrial life?
Best $25m you ever spent?
Charles Simonyi: 1. Yes. 3. Certainly. 2. No change of opinion - human spaceflight is not to get more information - that is best done with other instruments, like better telescopes. Human spaceflight is an exercise in hope - maybe that is what you meant namely that other life-forms have the same hopes as we do and will want to travel.
Seattle, WA: How long does it take to get into space?
Were you terrified?
What was it like coming back to Earth? Humbling?
Charles Simonyi: Just 8-9 minutes to orbit - that is all the fuel there is in the rocket. I enjoyed it a lot - it was very much like the simulations - I remembered when during one centrifuge simulation after 8 minutes the instructor said on the intercome: welcome to orbit. Now it was the same thing, except for real.
Coming back was sad because I was just getting used to working and living in space. But Earth is a pretty privileged place, too, so I am proud and happy to be here.
Minneapolis, MN: I wouldn't think going into space is worth the hassle--the training, the suits, sitting on the launchpad--just to be weightless for a while. What's the big deal?
Charles Simonyi: It is not everyone's cup of tea, I guess; there is more to Mona Lisa then the smile, more too opera than the fat lady singing at the end, and more to spaceflight than the weightlessness, but it takes more time to explain. A good topic for the book, though. I think the details of what is happening at each instance, the sights, the noises, the smell (or lack thereof) are all very interesting.
Yorba Linda, Calif.: Other Microsoft millionaires have put their windfall to work for society - Bill Gates being the prime example. Is supporting the Russian space industry really the best way to spend $25 million?
Charles Simonyi: While not on the same scale as Bill, I also have a philantropic organization for the Arts and Sciences. Of course this is not part of that, but the Russian space program is critical to the US and International space effort (for example the Soyuz is the only lifeboat on the space station) and from time to time the offical support of this effort was difficult so the private contributions were wery welcome on both sides - NASA as well as Russia.
Berkeley, CA: How would you describe your trip? What were the highlights and low points?
Charles Simonyi: Fantastic, a real "trip". Highlight was the arrival to the station and maybe reading books in orbit. There were no real low points, I was jet lagged on the second day (our sleep schedule was shifted, just like when time zones change after jet travel) and similar things that are normal for any voyage.
During training there were some points where I had a cold, was over-medicated, etc. that were unpleasant and created doubts in my mind if this will work.
Dallas, TX: I know you were quarantined before you went into space to prevent you from picking up any bugs from your loved ones, but what happens if you get a cold or, worse, the flu in space? Do they send medication up with you to treat various maladies? And is it safe to take in that environment? Or would you have to cut short your trip?
Charles Simonyi: It is very unlikely to get the bugs up there since everything is so clean - we wiped off with 100% alcohol before launch, for example. Nonetheless, there are two giant chests on the station- one Russian and one American - of medicines and medical equipment that we were briefed on. My crewmate Oleg Kotov is an MD, so that was good, too. Medication works pretty much as on the ground - I took some Advil and Metamucil during the two weeks, for example, with the usual effects.
Queens, NY: Did space travel change your view about what's important in life?
Charles Simonyi: No; family, work, learning and many other things are important without space and with space.
San Antonio, TX: What's next -- visiting the bottom of the ocean? (I'm not being sarcastic; I'm really wondering what you could possibly do that would ever equal this.)
Charles Simonyi: I think travel is just one dimension, there are many challenges in other dimensions, for example in software engineering, the area where my company is active. I am not a adventurer or a collector of travel experiences so I may not be the best person to make such comparisons.
Highland Park, TX: Had you thought about becoming an astronaut? Would it be too late for you to enter the NASA program now?
Charles Simonyi: I am pretty excitable: when I visited an aircraft carrier for two days, I was ready to join the Navy - fat chance, I am way too old. I certainly liked the company of Astronauts, and they liked to be with me, I think, but that was because of our differences, not because our similarities. I was never cut out to be a professional sailor or astronaut. But you have a point, I can really appreciate now why many Astronauts make multiple trips - once you get the hang of it, you become much more effective in space, so in a sense I have an advantage.
Fort Lee, NJ: What most surprised you about being in space? Was there anything you didn't prepare for?
Charles Simonyi: The trainers have done this hundreds of times, so they pretty much prepared us for everything. In a way going to space was like watching "Casablanca" (or any favorite movie) again and again: one does not expect surprises, one is looking for subtle details, or the "big picture", or see it on the big screen, high definition.
San Francisco, CA: What did you think of Eric Anderson? How did he convince you to take part in the program?
Charles Simonyi: I think he has fantastic imagination but he is also an engineer so he focuses on stuff that is barely possible - he is still pushing the limits, for example, planning a trip around the moon? What a concept. But now having flown in the Soyuz, I do not think it is completely crazy.
He was just using his experience to tell me that my early doubts about the physical demands were misplaced.
Boston, MA: Do you think we'll ever colonize the moon?
Charles Simonyi: depends if there is anything interesting there - there are also places on Earth we have not colonized. The book "Moon is a harsh mistress" which I took with me is talking about a moon colony. We are way behind the book's schedule, although the books' idea of what a big computer memory would be (10^7 bits, or one megabytes) sounds old fashioned today. So one never knows.
Portland, OR: What advice would you give someone who wants to travel in space?
Charles Simonyi: Work hard, make some money, and take care of your health.
Cabin John, MD: When you escaped Hungary as a teen, did you ever image that you would someday escape the earth's atmosphere?
Charles Simonyi: Not in my wildest dreams - really. It is an amazing thing that nonastronauts can fly at all.
Seattle, WA: Are there age limits for space travel? If so, do they differ for NASA and the space tourism program? (In other words, is the space tourism program more lenient?)
Charles Simonyi: Sen. Glenn was the oldest person ever to fly (I believe he was over 70 when he flew). But space tourism is much more lenient about flying rookies. For example, among the top 4 oldest rookies (among all the 450 humans that flew in space), #1, #2, and #4 are tourists (I am # 4). This makes sense. NASA (as well as the Russians) will fly experienced people, who tend to be older, but will prefer the younger people as rookies.
Houston, TX: Was it worth the money? Do you think the price tag will come down anytime soon?
Charles Simonyi: Yes it was - and there was no guarantee that I would fly, in which case I think the contribution and the learning experience would have been worth it.
Suborbital flights will be much cheaper. For orbital flights in the short term the price will go up, not down, as governments (such as Malaysia) start buying the seats and the supply is not going to increase.
Brooklyn, NY: What was the biggest challenge for you in training to be an astronaut (or space tourist)?
Were there any moments in space when you thought: "Uh oh, what have I gotten myself into?"
Charles Simonyi: I think the biggest challenge during the training was just to focus on the next step and not to get lost in all the difficulties at once.
The spaceflight was much easier than the training - partly because they train you for the worst case and partly because during training many things were new an unknown to me, while during flight all was familiar.
Cleveland, OH: Do you still work with Microsoft? How do you spend your time (money) these days?
Charles Simonyi: No, I have my own company Intentional Software Corporation, but I keep in touch with my Microsoft friends. I spend my time and my money on making our business - a new software tool called the Domain Workbench - successful.
Salem, OR: Do you think space tourism will become cheap enough in our lifetime that Americans who are not multi-millionaires will have an opportunity to take part?
Charles Simonyi: I have no doubts that suborbital spaceflight will be common by 2015, and normal (for example as scenic flights in Hawaii are normal) by 2050 the latest.
Clemson, S.C.: At the GOP debate, the candidates were mostly negative about spending money on space exploration, sending man to Mars. Do you think this is shortsighted?
Charles Simonyi: It is a difficult question. A tepid approach is probably not a good idea in any case, and by circumstance that is what people are debating today. It will take a special time and a special politician to say, like Pres. Kennedy did: "we choose to do it not because it is easy, but because it is hard. It will organize and measure the best of our energies and skills."
Seattle, WA: How do you sleep when you're up there? I mean, what is the arrangement and, also, was it hard to sleep?
How much space did you have to move around in inside the spaceship?
Charles Simonyi: I slept in a sleeping bag that was loosely tied to some handrails so that it would not float away. The permanent crew have tiny cabins, the others just "hang out" wherever convenient. We all sleep at the same time and during the day the sleeping bag is rolled up and bungied in a corner. The sleep was wonderful, one does not have to toss and turn at all. It is recommended to sleep in a ventillated area otherwise the exhaled carbon dioxide can build up around a person and one can get a terrible headache.
In the Soyuz (2 days) there was a spherical living room, the size of a VW Bug and a separate capsule that is extremely tight when all 3 of us are there, but quite spacious for one person.
The space station was as big as three city busses - lots of room for 6 people, especially when the ceiling as well as the floor can be used for moving around.
Atlanta, GA: Can you go into more detail on the kinds of tests you had to pass in order to gain clearance for space travel?
Charles Simonyi: Lots of psych tests, centrifuge, various lung tests, altitude chamber, MRI, digestive tract, stress ECG, all other organs, lots of blood work, weightless parabolas - these are just to begin training.
With the training there were lost of exams in the various topics - like life support systems, comm systems, etc. and simulations: combined crew mission simulations, day on the station simulation, survival training.
Charles Simonyi: Thanks a lot for your questions - I really enjoyed replying, especially the memories that the questions brought back. It was a real pleasure being able to share them with you - thanks Newsweek for arranging this forum.
Best Christmas and Holiday wishes to all,