Space tourist and philanthropist Charles Simonyi fuels dialogue

November 2, 2012

Gillian Frew ’11

charles simonyiCharles Simonyi has a simple explanation for what compelled him to become the fifth-ever private citizen to journey into outer space, and the first to do so twice:

“I like to know how things work,” said the former Microsoft engineer, who shared his story at a campus presentation for Whitman students, staff and faculty and members of the local community on Nov. 1.

Simonyi made two trips to the International Space Station, in 2007 and 2008. Only about 500 people in the world have experienced orbital spaceflight.

In his presentation, Simonyi, now a Seattle-based philanthropist and chairman and CTO of Intentional Software, regaled the capacity crowd with insight into the missions. He included photos of Earth, taken aboard the Soyuz spacecraft, which inspired audible “ahhs” from the crowd, while his wisecracks about Soviet-era technology and personal anecdotes of life in space kept the audience laughing throughout.

“I thought it was fascinating to see the personal side of what it’s actually like in the Soyuz,” said Andrea Dobson, associate professor of astronomy. “His comparison of space flight with airlines was very interesting. I think it’s an interesting question whether space flight is something that’s going to be accessible to a lot of people, or whether it will be reserved for the few and the elite.”  

Born in Budapest, Hungary, Simonyi moved to the U.S. in 1968 to attend the University of California, Berkeley, and later received his Ph.D. in computer science from Stanford. During his 21 years at Microsoft, he served as chief architect of such software programs as Microsoft Word and Excel, rubbing shoulders with both Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.

“When people ask me about space I really get going,” he warned the crowd. “I’m really honored to be here. This is my first time in Walla Walla, and seeing parts of your beautiful campus really makes me wish that I could go back to school.”

In his talk, titled “Space Tourist: Training and Mission,” Simonyi described the intensive eight- month training program he underwent in Moscow in preparation for launch. This included not only extensive safety classes and medical screenings, but also a survival course – just in case the returning shuttle lands in Siberia and the passengers are left to fend for themselves until rescuers arrive.

“There’s no such thing as an emergency landing, there’s such a thing as an unscheduled landing,” he joked. “They get you down in one piece, and then the emergency starts at that point.”

“Going to this lecture reinforced my belief that humans should seize every opportunity that is presented to them in life,” said Kaity Curry ’14, an art major from Sherwood, Ore. “In this day and age, money can buy you anything, even a trip around the Earth. But it wasn’t just money that sent Charles Simonyi on his adventures. It was dedication, curiosity, and commitment to excellence. We should all take a lesson from Charles in believing in what we have to offer to this world.”

-Gillian Frew '11