Microsoft Word creator to become first repeat space tourist

If everyone who visited Charles Simonyi’s Web site gave him just $1, he wouldn’t have to pay out of pocket to become the first space tourist to make a return trip into orbit.

Not that the former Microsoft engineer who developed Word and Excel is short of the $35 million price tag on his return to the International Space Station (ISS).

Charles Simonyi trains for his first trip to space in a Soyuz simulator.

Simonyi gets accustomed to the effects of zero-gravity on his first full day in space.

Even in times of economic uncertainty, it seems this billionaire won’t have to curb his vacation plans like many other Americans. But those who are missing out on travels this year can live the experience vicariously through www.charlesinspace.com.

“With this privilege comes the responsibility to share this experience,” Simonyi said in a teleconference. “I think I’ve done that a great deal through my Web site.”

During his trip up into space, Simonyi’s Web site attracted more than 33.5 million visitors – that’s equal to the population of Canada in just 14 days. The site featured live coverage of the mission from launch, to docking with the orbital outpost, to a return to Earth.

Aside from the live events, the Simonyi also blogged from space and answered questions submitted to him by adults and children alike. A special kid’s section on his Web site was designed to attract classroom participation to follow his mission. Simonyi hopes his return mission will also inspire school children.

“I hope that I’ve touched children with the wonder of science and its lead for them to study harder in school,” he says.

The former Microsoft chief architect plans to use his Web site once again to promote his return journey to the ISS. It will track him from his time training for the mission in Star City, Russia with the Soyuz TMA-14 crew from the Russian space agency. The crew is slated for a Spring launch to the ISS.

“Charles will be the first private space traveler to fly to space twice, [and] our first return customer,” said Eric Anderson, CEO of Space Adventures in the same teleconference. “This is a big milestone in my opinion for private space flight.”

The Vienna, Va.-based company is the first to arrange for private civilians to buy a ticket into space. So far it has sent five tourists to the ISS aboard the Russian Soyuz vessels. Simonyi was the most recent customer, but tourist Richard Garriott, son of astronaut Owen Garriott, is slated to launch his mission Oct. 14.

In Earth’s history, about 500 people have orbited in space. Many of those are career astronauts who revisit space multiple times. The training to prepare an astronaut for the rigours of space travel is intensive – involving zero-gravity routines and other extraordinary athletic feats.

Space agencies such as NASA benefit from experienced astronauts who get used to floating around and can focus on the mission.

Visiting space for the second time will be a different experience, Simonyi says, allowing him to focus on the subtleties and contribute more to science during his flight.

“There are so many things to accomplish, I just hope there will be enough time to do all of [them],” he says. “There will be an opportunity to do training that has to do with the actual work you’re doing, rather than just having to survive the mission.”

The training regimen for his first space flight involved some survival training that he noticed the other crew members didn’t have to undergo, the 60-year-old adds.

No experiments have been determined for Simonyi’s mission yet, he says.

Simonyi, was able to jump the queue of space tourists, signed on with Space Adventures as he was a member of an “insider’s” club.

Dubbed the Orbital Mission Explorer’s Circle, members get first dibs on available mission seats. When Google co-founder Sergey Brin passed on the chance to ride a rocket into space, Simonyi jumped on the opportunity.

“All of our previous clients at Space Adventures have indicated that they do want to go again,” Anderson says. “I must take my hat off to Charles for being the first to do that.”

Space tourism is like any business and relies on repeat customers for continued success, the CEO adds. That means they have to sell a ticket to space not just as an once-in-a-lifetime experience, but as a place that you could re-visit many times.

With Space Adventures price tag being so steep that only the ultra-rich can afford it, the average Joe Blow will have to experience space through interactive Web sites such as Simonyi’s for now.

But the Hungarian-born engineer is optimistic space tourism will be more affordable in the future.

After all, as observers note, the 100th anniversary of aviation just passed, and we now take flight for granted as an every day activity. The first space tourist went into orbit in 2001.

“If we aren’t going to explore space in new ways with new business models, we’re not going to get there,” he says. “People watching Star Trek shouldn’t take for granted that the future will be like that, we have to take steps to get there.”

Space Adventures isn’t the only company looking to make a business out of blasting people into space. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic plans to offer sub-orbital flights lasting just a couple of hours for a more affordable price tag of around $200,000.

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