Charles Simonyi: Space Tourist

Trustee Charles Simonyi had long aspired to travel into space. As a Hungarian teenager in 1963, he won a trip to Moscow where he met one of the first cosmonauts, Pavel Popovich. Last October, Simonyi spoke about his own spaceflight in “Space Tourist,” a public lecture at the Institute for Advanced Study, in which he discussed his trip last April aboard a Russian-built Soyuz spacecraft as the fifth civilian and the 450th person in space.

In his talk, which was designed to appeal to aspiring astronauts of all ages, Simonyi spoke animatedly about his training at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia; traveling to the International Space Station last April; and orbiting around the Earth sixteen times a day at 17,500 miles per hour.

On display in the lobby of Wolfensohn Hall were items from his spaceflight: a can of space food; a watch he wore on board the Soyuz spacecraft; his standard cosmonaut-issue jacket with the Institute for Advanced Study seal; a backpack handmade out of parachute material as part of his survival training; a dosimeter he used on board for measuring radiation; a harness equipped with ECG, temperature, and breathing-rate sensors that he wore during his launch into orbit and during his return to Earth; and a space glove belonging to his Sokol space suit.

Simonyi described the feeling of the spacecraft’s launch as akin to taking off in a helicopter or in a very fast elevator. The sensation of reentering the Earth’s atmosphere, he explained, was more like skiing. “The spacecraft body generates a slight lifting force and the sound it makes is very much like the whooshing sound of skiing,” Simonyi told the audience. “The view through the window was amazing. Things start to turn pink, and then the pink disappears and you see fire. The window is a triple window and the outside pane is designed to burn away, so it turns black. You can see it, kind of like a curling piece of paper in a fireplace, the window turning black from the bottom up.”

His favorite moment, Simonyi said, was when he arrived at the space station after traveling in space for two days. “We arrived at sunset and the colors at sunset are incredible. It was very theatrical. The colors are unusual and the structures are completely unusual. These are structures that couldn’t support themselves on Earth. They seem a little bit flimsy, and the colors change tremendously. The shadows are very, very sharp, just like in a theater. It was like being in the middle of a fantastic opera.”

Charles Simonyi, president and chief executive officer of Intentional Software Corporation, which he cofounded in 2002 after two decades at Microsoft, has been a Trustee of the Institute since 1997 and President of the Corporation since 2003. He will become Chairman of the Institute’s Board of Trustees in October.