The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Charles Simonyi sitting outside a Soyuz simulator prior to his 2007 flight to the ISS. He will be making a return visit to the station in late March. (credit: Space Adventures/Charles Simonyi)

The once and future space tourist

There are a huge number of events and experiences that get tagged with the phrase “once in a lifetime”—so many, perhaps, that it would take a lifetime to go through them all. Until recently, though, that phrase seemed to be an accurate description of commercial flights to the International Space Station. The combination of the small number of seats, the high ticket price (now estimated to be in the range of $35 million), and the long training period in the austere conditions of Star City, Russia made it unlikely anyone would make a repeat trip.

That’s why it was a surprise when Space Adventures announced in late September of last year that Charles Simonyi, the former Microsoft executive who flew to the ISS in 2007, would make a return trip this March. At the time Simonyi said he took advantage of the flight opportunity after joining the company’s Orbital Mission Explorer’s Circle, a sort of priority access list for future missions that the company unveiled last June along with its plans for a dedicated Soyuz mission to the ISS in 2011. But Simonyi was vague then about what he would be doing on his return trip and how things would be different this time around.

To learn more about his upcoming trip to the station, The Space Review’s Jeff Foust interviewed Simonyi by telephone last Wednesday, February 11. Simonyi had just completed an extended day of training in Star City with the two other people who will be flying with him on Soyuz TMA-14 on March 25 (the interview was delayed slightly because the training ran long.) During the interview Simonyi talked about the training for the flight, his plans for the mission, and why he decided to make a return trip, among other issues.

Extended excerpts of the interview (edited for clarity) follow:

TSR: Where are you in your training right now?

Simonyi: The training really started in earnest with the combined crew training this week. My commander, Gennady Padalka, and flight engineer Mike Barratt are here, and we are starting to work together. We had a simulation of a typical day on the space station just this morning and worked together for the first time. It was very exciting. I was watching Mike and Gennady do a simulated rendezvous with a Progress freighter that comes to the station. And, of course, there were all kinds of problems thrown into the simulation and they just handled it so well. I’ll be very happy to fly with them.

TSR: How much time had you spent with them before starting this training?

Simonyi: Basically zero. I’ve met them socially, and we might have had 10 minutes together in Houston when Gennady and I looked at models of the American segment.

TSR: Since this is your second trip, how is the training different from the first time?

Simonyi: It’s very different in that it’s much shorter. Last time I started in September and this time I started in January—and this time the flight is a little earlier in the year, towards the end of March instead of April. Much of my instruction is assumed to be still current. Of course, I need a little bit of a refresher, but it comes back very quickly. It’s much different than starting from scratch. Until now, and this probably the fifth week of training, we’ve concentrated on physical training and other medical aspects, and Russian language, and a very few refresher simulations. From here on, though, it will be very much like last time, since integrated crew training started at about the same time relative to the launch date.

It’s interesting that, especially for spaceflight participants, the crew training is separate because their tasks are so different and they have different levels of experience. So there’s not as much training together as I might have imagined.

TSR: Flying into space is often described as an experience of a lifetime. What led you to decide to do it again?

Simonyi: It is the experience of a lifetime, but of course you want to extend the experience as much as you can. On my first trip, 14 days long, most of it was spent getting used to space and learning about it. If you look at professional astronauts and cosmonauts, it’s astounding how many of them fly multiple times. It was something I never quite understood: I would see the same names again and again, and I would wonder why this person is flying again when there are others who would probably want to fly too.

Flying to space “is the experience of a lifetime, but of course you want to extend the experience as much as you can.”

The answer is that space agencies see that people with experience do much better. The “start up” time on that first flight takes away so much from the overall performance compared to the second and third flights. The top ten people have 60 flights among themselves, which is a lot of flights. It shows that, with experience, you can do so much better. In my case, I hope to accomplish more, in terms of experiments and amateur radio communications with schools and so on.

TSR: What sorts of experiments and other activities do you have planned for your flight?

Simonyi: It’s split into three groups. I’m doing the radiation measurement experiment again [which measures the space radiation environment on the station]. The people running the experiment were very pleased with the results, but they want to replace and recalibrate some elements of the experiment, and by recalibrating them we can make better sense of the data that has already been collected. It’s a pretty important subject for long-term spaceflight.

Then there are medical experiments. This includes backache in space, space adaptation sickness, and osteoporosis. Many of these experiments are easy to do: it’s not rocket science, so to speak. However, it takes time, and that’s what astronauts don’t have. So I feel that I can make myself perfectly useful just by contributing my time.

Finally, there’s the business of communicating with young people and radio amateurs. I was never an amateur radio operator, and it was during my training that I learned more about the community of amateurs. It’s quite amazing: it really is the first Internet. It’s an efficient device that’s absolutely free to use. I intend to use it to talk with amateurs, which is just a fun thing, but also to communicate with schools and raise awareness of science and technology education for young people.

TSR: Did you choose those experiments yourself, or did scientists and space agencies approach you to fly them?

Simonyi: Well, I chose them in the sense that I went to the agencies and told them that I’m here to help. There are experiments that they would like to do but there’s no time for them. There are also experiments that practically everyone does, but the more data points you have, the better the results are going to be. An example is space adaptation syndrome. It’s a very tricky subject. It’s just like with any drug trial: just because you give someone a drug and they get better, that doesn't mean anything by itself. You really need a lot of data points to determine what are the causes and what are the effective remedies. For example, I followed the Russian regime for preparing for weightlessness and I didn’t get sick. Now what does that mean? Does that mean that the Russian regime is effective? No. But it is a data point, and having more data is better for everybody.

TSR: So you do carefully plan out your activities in advance, scheduling what you’ll be working on each hour of every day in space?

Simonyi: Yes, very much. In general the astronauts’ time is planned out, including the time of the spaceflight participant. There is a computer program that shows the schedule moving almost like an assembly line from the right to the left, through a red line that represents the present; the tasks are moving from the future to the past. It’s very much like an assembly line. It’s amazing how fast time goes.

TSR: Do you have a different sense of anticipation or other feelings about your mission compared to the first time, since you know what the experience is like now?

Simonyi: Absolutely. The feeling of anticipation is quite different. I never had fear of something bad happening the first time, but I did worry about whether I could perform well. In weightlessness more than half the people get sick. It’s not the worst thing that could happen, but it is unpleasant and it takes away from your time and your enjoyment, so you do worry about it a little bit. I didn’t get sick, and while there’s no guarantee I wouldn’t get sick the next time the probability is much less.

“The feeling of anticipation is quite different. I never had fear of something bad happening the first time, but I did worry about whether I could perform well.”

I appreciate the training more now. I appreciated it before, but I did so basically on faith, but not based on experience. I now know what points aren’t that important. My commander, for example, is a tremendously senior person with a lot of experience, but I can see how he directs his training. He knows exactly where he needs to be training and what things are not that important. It’s not like he’s not training at 100 percent, but instead using that 100 percent more effectively than if he had been a passive person. I’m nowhere near there, but I’ve noticed that I’ve deemphasized some stuff in favor of other things that I know worked for me in the past. So I’m working at 100 percent too, but maybe with a better allocation of that 100 percent.

TSR: You mentioned earlier the Russian regime for preparing for weightlessness. What exactly is it, and how does it differ from American training?

Simonyi: Since I’m flying on a Russian vehicle, I know how that is done; I know less about the American regime. The Russians essentially train in various ways to desensitize people to what might cause the vestibular system upsets. So we use this rotating chair, called a Coriolis acceleration chair. It’s a not pleasant, but not painful, experience that gets you used to your vestibular system getting attacked. All I can say is that, when in orbit, if I had any feeling of unease due to weightlessness—which I did—that reminded me of the feelings I had in the chair, and as such was a familiar feeling that I knew I could tolerate for quite a while.

TSR: On your first trip you had a web site,, with information about your mission. Are you going to be doing something similar with this trip?

Simonyi: Absolutely. The site is getting a complete facelift. It will have new content and questions, and it will be online in a couple of days. [Ed. Note: the updated site went live the day after this interview.]

TSR: The general public often refers to commercial visitors to the ISS such as yourself as “space tourists”, a term that some fellow customers have rejected in favor of terms like “private space explorer”. Do you like the term “space tourist”, and if not, is there a better term that you prefer?

Simonyi: I must be the only one who doesn’t mind this term. There’s a lot of honesty to this term, but of course it can be misunderstood and misinterpreted. In deference to my colleagues, the official term is “spaceflight participant”. If we had to vote among the six of us [the six commercial visitors to the ISS], that would be the term that would probably win after a couple of rounds of voting. Different people emphasize different aspects of spaceflight.

There are people who want to open up space for commercial enterprise, which would be wonderful if it could be done effectively. I don’t see any business model yet other than tourism for human spaceflight. I think that tourism is a good term. It means that we go there because it’s there, something is drawing us there. We don’t know what we are going to find, but it’s destiny, it’s hope, to me it’s a very positive thing.

When you look at science fiction, like Star Trek, it’s obvious that they’re not there as tourists; they’re there because it’s a part of their life. The only way you’re going to get there is by making the first steps, and when you make those steps, you’re not going to find anything that is immediately useful. You’re not going to find a cure for cancer. You’re not going to find incredible microchips. On the other hand, I know we will find something, I just don’t know what. And the only way to find out what it is is by going on the basis of hope and destiny. But that’s just my opinion.

TSR: Have you considered investing in any commercial space companies, particularly in the tourism field?

Simonyi: No, no. I’m not an investor, I’m a customer of these industries. I recommend it to everyone else to be a customer. Whether it’s a good investment is a completely different question, and one I’m not qualified to talk about.

“There are people who want to open up space for commercial enterprise, which would be wonderful if it could be done effectively. I don’t see any business model yet other than tourism for human spaceflight.”

People don’t have to start thinking about an orbital spaceflight, which is still very, very special and very, very expensive. But what about going on a weightless parabolic flight? That’s the same cost as going to Hawaii. It’s shorter, but it’s almost as much fun. You get to experience weightlessness, which is an incredible feeling. It’s fantastic. It’s a little part of space that’s quite affordable.

In a few years there will be suborbital flights, and it will be very interesting to see how that works out. And in the future there will be orbital flights that will be more frequent and more affordable.

TSR: Will this second trip to space be your last, or do you plan on going yet again?

Simonyi: This is guaranteed to be the last. My wife said no more. But maybe in 20 years it will be so common she will relent and say, “Well, since everybody else is going to space, we might as well do one together.” Who knows? But this is going to be the last for a long time.