Charles Simonyi, Software Giant Turned Space Tourist, Talks Technology and Exploration at UW

Do you ever sit down with a friend who wants to show you all their latest vacation pictures? (Maybe not as much since photo-sharing sites took off.) Well, yesterday’s kickoff of the Distinguished Lecturer Series at the University of Washington’s department of computer science and engineering was just like that—if your friend were Charles Simonyi, a software billionaire, showing you videos from a $35 million vacation in space.

Simonyi, the father of Microsoft Word and Excel, and now head of Bellevue, WA-based Intentional Software, regaled the crowd of a couple hundred students, faculty, and guests with stories and videos from his second trip to space last March. Simonyi rode a Russian Soyuz rocket to the International Space Station (ISS), docked and spent some time there, and returned safely to Earth, looking none the worse for wear. He is an outspoken proponent of space tourism, and he pointed out that Guy Laliberté, the founder of Cirque du Soleil, is currently making his way aboard the space station as “the first clown in space” (and the seventh space tourist ever).

Just a few interesting tidbits that stood out to me:

—Seattle and Mercer Island look very pretty from space. “You can’t see the Great Wall or the Pyramids, but you can see Sea-Tac,” Simonyi said. You can also see clouds, lightning storms, and jet contrails, the latter especially over North America. Watching the sunrise from orbit is spectacular.

—The instruments on the spacecraft look refreshingly antique. You think they’d be slick and modern-looking, but the inside of the Soyuz and space station look like they’re out of a 1970s sci-fi movie. In fact, some instruments date back to 19th century designs (“tried and true”), and software on the rocket runs on an Intel 386 processor from the ’80s. “Older chips are more resistant to radiation,” Simonyi explained.

—Bodily functions are funny in space. You wear a lightly applied tourniquet to keep blood flowing in your legs; you get a puffy face from lack of circulation; the toilet is an engineering marvel … Next Page »

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