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 involving airflow that sucks waste through a funnel into a small bucket. After you brush your teeth, you can use a tiny strip of tissue to absorb all the weightless water. Simonyi said sleeping in weightlessness feels great to him, and the cold space food from a can is “quite tasty, especially if you’re hungry.”

—Kids from Earth ask the strangest questions. Simonyi had a chat from space over ham radio with a class of young students from Cambridge, UK. I caught one question on the list: “Could a bear eat marmalade sandwiches on the ISS?” Must be a British thing.

—When you touch down in the Kazakhstan desert, keep your mouth shut. Not because of the locals, but because you might bite your tongue on impact, which occurs at about 25 mph. The re-entry process for the Soyuz capsule went smoothly; it involves two parachutes, heat shields, pressurization—and some steely nerves.

By the end, it sounded like a good (if unlikely) place to escape the rigors of modern Earthly life. In fact, back in February, Simonyi said he couldn’t bring his Kindle aboard the space station because it’s not officially qualified—the risk is that the battery of an unknown device could cause a fire. (Maybe that’s when we’ll know the Kindle is here to stay—when it becomes certified for space use. Jeff Bezos, a space buff himself, is probably working on this right now.)

In chatting with the audience, Simonyi closed with some provocative thoughts about space exploration. For one thing, he thinks we should push robotic exploration of space much more. “Robots are always better at doing science that has nothing to do with humans,” he said. But still, he added, it’s his hope that eventually space tourism will become cheaper and more like an everyday activity, the way air travel and computers have come to enrich our modern lives.

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