Two-time spaceflier Charles Simonyi offers advice for commercial space travelers

Charles Simonyi
With a photo of his Soyuz launch in the background, Microsoft’s Charles Simonyi talks about spaceflight’s physical effects at a Hacker News Seattle Meetup. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Microsoft billionaire Charles Simonyi is the only man on Earth to buy a multimillion-dollar ride to orbit not just once, but twice — so it’s worth considering the advice he has for future commercial spacefliers:

“Don’t sweat the small stuff,” he said at a Hacker News Seattle Meetup on Wednesday evening. “Don’t worry, be happy. It’s going to work out.”

At least that’s the advice he gave a 9-year-old girl who attended Simonyi’s talk. He noted that the girl, who came to the event with her mother, was about the same age as one of his daughters.

“I’m convinced that people of your age will go to space,” Simonyi told her. “Not that they’ll live there. But I don’t think there’s anybody here who hasn’t flown, right? So it’s going to be somewhat the same.”

Simonyi first flew to the International Space Station in 2007 aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft for a weeklong stay in orbit. Then he signed up for another trip in 2009. The precise prices for those trip haven’t been disclosed, but they were rumored to be in the range of $25 million to $35 million each. He did say the second trip was cheaper than the first one, in part because he was taking advantage of someone else’s cancellation.

Why take two trips? “The second time, in a way, was much better,” he said.

Simonyi compared the experience to seeing a favorite movie for a second time. “You notice things that you hadn’t had a chance to notice the first time,” he said.

Only about 500 people have flown to space over the past 60 years, but that number could rise significantly in the next year or two.

Two space ventures backed by billionaires, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, could conceivably start flying passengers on suborbital spaceships this year. And SpaceX, the company founded by billionaire Elon Musk, has just made a deal with Virginia-based Space Adventures to send up to four people into orbit for several days, in a Crew Dragon spaceship that could be launched in late 2021 or 2022.

Space Adventures happens to be the company that arranged both of Simonyi’s space trips, as well as similar flights for six other deep-pocketed customers.

The folks who fly on the Crew Dragon would spend a few days in space, under spartan conditions that would probably remind Simonyi of his own experience on the Soyuz. “It’s like being in a tent,” he recalled.

One big difference: SpaceX’s fliers would be required to go through only a few weeks of pre-flight training, which pales in comparison with the year that Simonyi spent training with the Russians. Not that he minded taking that much time off from his duties at Intentional Software, the company he was running at the time.

“Space is one of those things you can use as an excuse,” he joked. “You break all your promises. You just drop out. And it was fantastic, just in terms of my mental health.”

Simonyi said he suspects that more people will go on suborbital space trips, which are priced at hundreds of thousands of dollars rather than the tens of millions of dollars it’ll take to go into orbit on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.

“Suborbital flights will be incredibly popular, I hope,” he said. “It’s hard to tell. You will get [a few] minutes of really clean weightlessness, you won’t get sick. … Training will be minimal, you get the view, you get a badge, and the cost is not ridiculous.”

Orbital flight could be a different story.

“How many people are there who are willing to pay today’s prices? And what is the net promoter score?” Simonyi asked. “That remains to be seen.”

Governments who can’t afford their own full-fledged space programs could well turn out to be the biggest buyers for commercial orbital trips.

That was certainly the case back when Simonyi was in training: He noted that the Malaysian and Korean governments basically bought rides from the Russians for their astronauts in 2007 and 2008.

“That’s also private spaceflight,” Simonyi said.

Check out the Facebook video stream from the Hacker News Seattle Meetup.

Meetup Livestream — Billionaire space tourist creator of Microsoft Word and Excel Charles Simonyi ????

Posted by Timothy Kitchen on Wednesday, February 26, 2020

 

Organizers of the monthly Hacker News Seattle Meetup include Vlad Mkrtumyan, CEO of Logic Inbound; Jasper Kuria, managing partner of The Conversion Wizards; and Timothy Kitchen, co-founder of Thunderpenny. Full disclosure: Back in 2007, GeekWire’s Alan Boyle wrote a tour guide for Simonyi’s first spaceflight as a freelance project.

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