American billionaire Charles Simonyi is gearing up for his second trip to space as a paying civilian.
Set to launch Thursday at 7:49 a.m. EDT (1149 GMT) on a Russian Soyuz rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, Simonyi will become the first two-time space tourist. He is to ride along with the International Space Station (ISS)'s new Expedition 19 crewmembers, NASA astronaut Michael Barratt and Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka.
Simonyi paid about $35 million to the Russian Federal Space Agency, through the U.S. firm Space Adventures, for his 13-day trip to the orbiting laboratory. He plans to conduct scientific experiments, take pictures of Earth and talk to students around the world via HAM Radio. He said he hopes to accomplish even more than he did during his first trip in 2007.
"The efficiency of working in space is just increased so much by having had the prior experience," Simonyi told SPACE.com in a recent interview. "It's a little bit like riding a bicycle. When you get to space it?s a different environment. Weightlessness has all kinds of effects on how you work and how you feel. It's much more efficient to do it the second time."
Simonyi made his fortune as a computer software executive, working for Microsoft and later founding his own company, the Intentional Software Corp. He said he's been a space enthusiast his whole life, and even represented his native Hungary as a Junior Cosmonaut at age 13, when he won a trip to Moscow to meet one of the first cosmonauts. He is an avid pilot and has logged more than 2,000 hours of flying time.
One big change between Simonyi's upcoming flight and his last is that this time he'll be leaving behind his wife, Lisa Persdotter, whom he married last year.
"I'm very happy that my wife supports me in this," he said. "It just makes it that much more precious."
Simonyi will be the first repeat customer for Vienna, Va.-based Space Adventures, which began organizing space missions for private citizens in 2001.
"I think he's going to continue to work towards achieving the objectives he laid out originally, but he's going to go a little more in depth," Eric Anderson, Space Adventures president, told SPACE.com. "It's like seeing a movie for the second time, or going back to a city you?ve visited once before, and knowing what to do."
Simonyi paid an extra $5 million to be part of Space Adventures' Orbital Missions Explorers Circle, an elite club that allowed him to skip ahead of others on the waiting list for trips to space.
During his mission, Simonyi plans to blog about his experiences on a daily basis at his Web site www.charlesinspace.com.
He will be visiting a much-changed space station, compared to the relatively smaller ISS he stayed on in 2007. Since that trip, the huge Japanese Kibo lab module, the European Columbus module, and final sets of solar arrays - the last of which were unfurled last week by shuttle Discovery astronauts - among other things, have been added to the orbiting outpost. Simonyi said he's looking forward to seeing the station again in all its glory.
"It's such an unexpected jewel in the emptiness of space," he said. "It?s a bit theatrical in its shape, its appearance and colors."
If Simonyi is unable to fly at the last minute, entrepreneur Esther Dyson could fill in. Dyson, daughter of eminent physicist Freeman Dyson, paid $3 million to train as Simonyi's backup, and hopes to travel to space eventually.
Simonyi?s second spaceflight comes on the heels of NASA?s shuttle Discovery mission to complete the space station?s power grid. Commanded by veteran spaceflyer Lee Archambault, Discovery?s crew is due to undock from the station on Wednesday and return to Earth Saturday to complete a 13-day construction flight to the orbiting laboratory.
SPACE.com will provide full coverage of Simonyi?s second space tourist flight and the Expedition 19 mission with reporter Clara Moskowitz and senior editor Tariq Malik in New York. Click here for mission updates and SPACE.com's live NASA TV video feed.
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