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Originally published October 27, 2006 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 27, 2006 at 3:10 PM

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From Hungary to the galaxy, Simonyi's goals always high

The tech billionaire is bound for outer space in March, joining Russian cosmonauts on a flight to the international space station.

Seattle Times senior technology reporter

Charles Simonyi considers himself blessed to be able to fly to space.

Four decades after he fled Soviet-occupied Hungary to help create the U.S. personal-computer industry and key Microsoft products such as Word and Excel, Simonyi is to join two Russian cosmonauts flying a Soyuz TMA10 to the international space station on March 9.

But the lucky ones may be the cosmonauts.

Details are still being worked out, but Simonyi may bring along food prepared by his "special friend," domestic goddess Martha Stewart.

Simonyi, 58, will be the fifth space tourist in a burgeoning industry that has captured the fancy of billionaire entrepreneurs. Many were inspired by science fiction to enter the technology industry; now they're building rockets, developing spaceports and hoping to start regularly scheduled moon flights by 2020.

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos are investing in space ventures, and Seattle has space-related companies that draw on local aerospace talent.

Simonyi has put his energy into Intentional Software, a Bellevue programming-tools company he started after leaving Microsoft in 2002, and into a charitable foundation that supports the arts, science and education.

He's flying with Space Adventures, a Vienna, Va.-based company that flew the first paying passenger to space in 2001. It places clients aboard Russian space flights out of Kazakhstan.

Charles Simonyi


Age: 58

Home: Medina

Family: A bachelor romantically linked with Martha Stewart. His late father was an esteemed physicist and his mother is a language teacher.

Background:After fleeing Hungary at age 17, he worked as a programmer in Denmark, then studied math and engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. He earned a doctorate in computer science from Stanford University. He's been a U.S. citizen since 1982.

Career:Worked at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center from 1972 to 1980, then at Microsoft from 1981 to 2002. Among his titles at Microsoft were director of application development, chief architect and distinguished engineer.

Noteworthy:Led the development of Microsoft Word and Excel, after creating the first WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) text editor at Xerox.

Pursuits:Intentional Software, a Bellevue programming-tools company started in 2002, and his foundation, the Charles Simonyi Fund for Arts and Sciences. Beneficiaries include Seattle Symphony, Seattle Public Library and Russian National Orchestra.

Hobbies:He is a pilot with more than 2,000 hours of flight time and licenses to fly jets and helicopters.

"We've turned space tourism from a fantasy into an idea that's become an industry," Chief Executive Eric Anderson said during a news conference Thursday at the Museum of Flight, where details of Simonyi's trip were provided.

Anderson said Simonyi will pay between $20 million and $25 million for his eight-day stay aboard the space station. He'll become the 450th person to enter orbit since manned spaceflights began in 1961.

Around that time, when Simonyi was 13, he won a science contest to become Hungary's "junior astronaut" and met members of the early USSR cosmonaut team.

Saturday, he's flying to Moscow to continue extensive physical training and medical testing with the current cosmonauts.

During the news conference, reporters pressed Simonyi for anecdotes about childhood dreams of space travel, but he didn't play along.

"It wasn't my dream," he said. "My dream was to get out of Hungary, go to the West and be free."

He did offer a sound bite, however: "I might be the first nerd in space."

At 17, Simonyi left Hungary to be a programmer in Denmark, then came to the U.S. to study engineering, math and computer science at the University of California, Berkeley and Stanford University. He worked at Xerox's famed Palo Alto Research Center, then joined Microsoft in 1981.

Paul Allen and Bill Gates were among the handful of people he talked to about the space trip before making his commitment. Others included Stewart, his mother, brother and Neil Armstrong, the astronaut who in 1969 became the first to walk on the moon.

Simonyi said all were supportive, especially Armstrong. "Neil Armstrong said, 'Go for it.' "

Another friend, telecom scion Bruce McCaw, flies jets like Simonyi but doesn't want to go to space. "Once upon a time I did, but I've got three kids now," he said.

Is McCaw concerned about Simonyi's safety? "You spend all your life worrying about safety and then you get mowed down in a crosswalk," he said. "I think he knows exactly what he's doing."

Asked if the trip made him confront his mortality, Simonyi said, "Frankly it did not."

"One worries about the future in general, and I think it's a healthy thing to get your affairs in order," he said.

"For example, I had a will before, and this is not a bad time to update my will and make sure. For example, the business can proceed because there's a question of continuity there. But apart from that, it doesn't enter into my mind."

Simonyi is primarily going as a tourist, but he wants the trip to be more than a fancy. He will help conduct experiments aboard the station, where scientists may use him as a subject for medical research into conditions such as osteoporosis.

Another goal is to heighten children's interest in science. He has a Web site, www.charlesinspace.com, which follows his training and flight.

The arts and architecture patron will do his part to improve the space station. He's bringing books, including German and English versions of Goethe's "Faust" and Robert Heinlein's "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress."

Simonyi sees the trip's cost as an investment that may eventually help reduce the cost of space travel and make it more accessible to more than just billionaires like him.

"It is unfortunate civilian spaceflight is not very inexpensive today," he said. "I'm spending a fair amount of money that I consider in part a contribution to the advancement of the space program, the Russian space program."

Simonyi noted that technology he worked on early in his career, such as computers and laser printers, were fantastically expensive at first. Now laser printers are $300.

"Who knows what the future brings?" he said. "I think it's always necessary to make the next-most step."

Brier Dudley: 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com

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