Today, the man who brought us Microsoft Word will climb aboard the International Space Station (ISS). It will literally be the high point on a long winding road for Charles Simonyi, whose life reads like an old-fashioned article from the Saturday Evening Post. Simonyi blasted off Saturday from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on board a Russian Soyuz space vehicle as a so-called space tourist to spend nearly two weeks in orbit. At a price estimated to be as much as US $25 million, it's an out of this world vacation for someone who once worked as a night watchman at a computer laboratory.
A native of Hungary, the 58-year-old Simonyi was deeply influenced by the early days of space exploration by Russian cosmonauts and American astronauts. The son of an electrical engineer, he came into the field of software programming as something of a fluke. As a high school student in Budapest, he took a part-time job at night helping to guard a large Soviet tube-based computer called the Ural II. Interested in the machine, Simonyi won the support of staff members and soon found himself tinkering with programs for it. By the time he graduated, he was proficient enough to write compilers, the basis of sophisticated instructions. After a stint at a Danish computer firm, he enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley in 1968, a hotbed of intellectual fervor in many areas, including software.
During his graduate studies in the late seventies at Stanford University, Simonyi was hired to work on software applications at the legendary Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), where many of the fundamental breakthroughs in personal computing were being developed. There, he created one of the first computerized document preparation programs. Acting on the advice of a PARC mentor, none other than Robert Metcalfe (of Metcalfe's Law fame), he approached Bill Gates directly and asked for a job at Gates' nascent software company in 1981. Soon, Simonyi was hard at work developing the forerunners of word processing and spreadsheet calculation programs at Microsoft Corp. The rest, as they say, is pretty much history.
Vested with a great deal of company stock over the next two decades, Simonyi eventually left Microsoft to start his own venture, called Intentional Software, which explores the possibilities of a software development technique called intentional programming in 2002. His net worth at the time was estimated to be approximately $1 billion. Which brings us to how one goes about fulfilling one's lifelong goal of traveling in outer space.
The money Simonyi paid to the Russian space agency helps defray expenses involved in shuttling cosmonauts (and astronauts) to the space station in a period of constrained budgets. After completing a training program last year, the Russian agency certified Simonyi as a qualified Spaceflight Participant, capable of carrying out certain mission tasks. On the current Soyuz flight, called TMA-10, he is under the supervision of Commander Fyodor Yurchikhin and Pilot Oleg Kotov, who will remain aboard the ISS as its fifteenth crew. Simonyi will return to Earth on 20 April aboard Soyuz TMA-9 with the members of the fourteenth expedition, Commander Michael Lopez-Alegria and Flight Engineer Mikhail Tyurin.
Naturally, as Simonyi is a software developer, you can find out all that you want about his journey at a Web site he has set up in cyberspace called, conveniently, Charles in Space. It should have quite a story to tell—from someone who has already had quite an interesting story to tell about his life.
Oh, did we forget to mention that his rumored romantic interest, Martha Stewart, prepared a special meal the ISS crews will be dining on while circling the planet tonight?