Early Soyuz Spacecraft Had a Peculiar User Interface, Says Charles Simonyi

The legendary developer went to space twice, and couldn’t help but notice the capsule’s quirky virtual interface

Photo of Charles Simonyi smiling while floating in the International Space Station.
Photo: NASA
U.S. spaceflight participant Charles Simonyi floats in the Harmony node of the International Space Station in March of 2009.
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Charles Simonyi earned his place in history as part of the team that developed the Bravo word processing program at Xerox Parc. Bravo was the first What-You-See-is-What-You-Get (WYSIWIG) word processing program, which let you work without cluttering your text with formatting codes. Simonyi went on to Microsoft and the development of Word.

So yeah, he’s a user interface guy. And that’s something that was hard to put aside, even when he was immersed in talking about his other passion—space.

In the mid-2000s, Simonyi took two trips to the International Space Station, catching a ride with Russian cosmonauts. He talked about those journeys last week during a panel discussion about the impacts of software development on space—and space on software development—held at the Computer History Museum. A video of “If Software, Then Space” is available here.

Simonyi, born in then-communist Hungary, got interested in space as a child, teaching himself English in order to read Western reports on space science. His first English word, he says, was “propellant.” He met his first cosmonauts at age 12, part of a trip to Moscow he won through a made-for-TV contest. Later, as a student at Berkeley, he rented a color television to watch the moon landing. But he never thought he’d go to space himself.

This notion of being able to fly into space as a tourist came out of the blue in early 2000s, thanks to an effort by the Russian space agency to raise money. Simonyi trained with U.S. astronauts in Houston, then went on to Russia’s Star City for more intense training and language study.

At Star City, he said, finances were clearly tight. “We used torn up drawings in the toilets,” he said. But, towards “the end of training,” he says, “I found toilet paper. I thought, ‘They must have cashed my check.’”

Once aboard the Russian capsule, Simonyi couldn’t help but notice the user interface—and think about how legacy systems influence design.

According to Simonyi, it was, “a simulation of an earlier spacecraft that had physical buttons, labeled exactly the same. They wanted to keep the training and all the documentation the same, so they created an emulator that runs on Unix, on a 386 chip.” [See photos, below]

“They liked the older chips because of radiation resistance and the feature set,” he pointed out.

Operating the virtual interface, though, was a lot trickier than just pushing a button.

“There are rows and columns,” he said, “and you move the cursor over the button and use another button to push the virtual button.”

Legacy systems also influenced the design of the interface to the guidance computer, he pointed out.

“On the right side,” he said, there are these windows that are numbers you type in by pushing virtual buttons below them. You use the cursor keys to go to the virtual buttons then push an entry button that is virtual.” [See photo.]

“You can see that even as the technology changes, they want to keep as many things the same as possible.”

Another panelist at the Computer History Museum event, space historian Matthew Shindell, pointed out that stopping technology progress, at times, can be an essential way of avoiding computer problems. Space missions take a long time—from the time the technology is developed and tested, to the time it gets up in space, and then to the years it can take to fulfill the mission’s goals.

During that time, Shindell said, “You have to freeze your technology. You can’t have computers on Earth getting upgrades; they have to stay compatible with the computers in space.”

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