Orbital Trek 'Beyond Wildest Dreams' for Space Tourist
U.S. spaceflight participant Charles Simonyi is taken in his chair to the medical tent near the Soyuz TMA-9 spacecraft where the recovery officials conduct post-landing medical checks after he and two Expedition 14 astronauts returned from the International Space Station.
Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls.

American billionaire Charles Simonyi is reacquainting himself with gravity after a two-week voyage to the International Space Station (ISS); an orbital trip chock full of precious moments.

"You know, every part had its highlights, and they just kept coming and coming," Simonyi, 58, told SPACE.com Monday via telephone from Star City, Russia. "Arriving at the space station, for example. I knew that that would be magic, and it was beyond my wildest dreams how the space station looked."

Simonyi, a former Microsoft software developer and lifelong spaceflight enthusiast, spent nearly 14 days in orbit -- 12 of them aboard the space station -- under a $20 million-to-$25 million deal between Russia's Federal Space Agency and the Virginia-based firm Space Adventures. He is the world's fifth space tourist to visit the ISS and set a new spaceflight endurance record for the longest trek by a private spaceflyer during the flight.

"I don't see this about records and I don't think that such a record will stand for long," Simonyi said of his flight, which he chronicled at his Web site: www.charlesinspace.com. "I'm just happy that we had that extra time. It would have been even busier without it, so it's kind of hard to imagine how we could have finished packing."

Simonyi launched towards the ISS with its new Expedition 15 crew -- cosmonauts Fyodor Yurchikhin and Oleg Kotov -- on April 7 and returned with Expedition 14 commander Michael Lopez-Alegria and flight engineer Mikhail Tyurin on April 21. Two weeks of weightlessness left the Hungary-born Simonyi a bit off balance, though he has already begun readaptation sessions that include liberal doses of swimming.

"Swimming is actually very nice," Simonyi said. "It's just a safe way to exercise and make an effort without falling over."

Drifting off to sleep in a sleeping bag strung up like a hammock inside a Russian docking compartment aboard the station was both comfortable and fun, Simonyi said, but confessed that some terrestrial niceties were unavailable aboard the orbital laboratory.

"I was missing showers and beer," Simonyi said, adding that he has partaken of both luxuries since returning to Earth. "I'm sipping a little beer right now."

Simonyi said he is looking forward to getting back to his work at Intentional Software Corp., which he co-founded, and resuming his life on Earth.

"This was a unique opportunity and I had to do that now," said Simonyi, who once represented his native Hungary as a Junior Astronaut on a trip to Moscow at age 13. "I interrupted and put everything aside in my life now I have to restart my life. The guys at Intentional Software are doing some great stuff and I want to rejoin it."

Of vistas and video

Among the many images burned in Simonyi's mind from his spaceflight are the dazzling transitions between night and day in Earth orbit.

The ISS orbits the Earth once every 90 minutes, giving astronauts 16 sunrises and sunsets every 24 hours. Simonyi and the Expedition 15 crew docked at the ISS on April 9 just as the Sun set over the horizon with amazing speed, which the space tourist likened to the lighting of a modern opera during his flight.

"When they happen, the color of everything changes," Simonyi said of sunsets in space. "In about 10 seconds it changes from brilliant white, through all the shades to essentially invisible black...that was sunset someplace.

"I did not know what I was looking at, but it was the most incredible thing," Simonyi said.

During his 12 days aboard the ISS, Simonyi performed a series of experiments for the Federal Space Agency, European Space Agency, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and the Hungary Space Office. He also made numerous radio and video broadcasts from orbit, many of which conducted with students on Earth, in efforts to spur interest in human spaceflight, science and technology.

"We had four million visitors to the Web site...I can't even imagine such a number," Simonyi said, adding that he was able to answer about 100 questions pertaining to life in space during his flight. "We are going to put more material [online] and I think it's going to be great to be able to share this experience."

Simonyi said he was surprised to learn about the finer details of life in space, such as the relative ease of eating beef and vegetables -- which stuck together when they drifted free of a fork -- when compared to the multi-step process of preparing a juice drink from its powdered form (which requires pumping a bag full of lukewarm water, mixing it up, then letting it cool before attempting the tricky task of inserting a straw without spilling wet liquid spheres around the space station).

"I don't know where spaceflight would be without Velcro," Simonyi said, adding that spaceflyers get a certain despondent look on their faces -- one he also wore during the flight -- when searching station walls and air filters for lost items. "Even with all that Velcro, it's pretty difficult to get simple things done."

Simonyi has said he hopes his trip encourages others to take similar voyages, each of which will lead to even larger steps to further space exploration.

"When you looking at 'Star Trek', there has to be some path to get there," Simonyi said before flight. "And I think that now's the time to make the incremental steps."