an interview with charles simonyi
It seems that when it comes to space travel, once just isn’t enough which is why the fifth space tourist to visit the ISS, Charles Simonyi, is currently training for his second trip into orbit. And while this blog doesn’t have a worldwide network of correspondents to catch up with Charles in Star City, the Russian aeronautics complex on the outskirts of Moscow (maybe one day, but for the time being it’s just me, a phone and a laptop), thanks to the team at Space Adventures, we got to discuss how he decided to venture into space and his views on this emerging industry.
Q: What inspired you to become a space tourist?
A: I was amazed it was even possible for a physically normal person like me to take part in this kind of venture. I took the first two week training course which wasn’t in Star City but at a resort in Spain, and I was very impressed by all the experts and their level of knowledge. After that, the next step was a thorough physical and I was pleasantly surprised that the doctors declared me as fit to go into space. So at that time, any doubts I had were erased by professionals and I was very excited to go.
Q: What does your training consist of and what is it like to go through it again?
A: My training is quite a bit shorter now, down from 8 months from the first flight to 3 months now. There’s a lot of Russian, a lot of re-familiarization of the technical aspects of flight. There is a final exam coming up very soon so right now we’re all getting ready for it.
Q: Do you feel the price tag for the trip was worth it? Where do you see prices for orbital space tourism going?
A: The real question isn’t what it costs but whether you should go into space to begin with. The prices [for orbital tourism flights] are going up right now, but they’re just a fraction of the cost of what it takes to travel into space if you look at shuttle launches for example. So really, there’s no price gouging going on here. I think that space programs are very important and I’m happy to support them with my taxes but if there’s a person willing to pay to fly, it’s great too. From a scientific standpoint, a professional astronaut or someone like me are the same. My blood is as red as the professionals’ so a study of early onset osteoporosis can be done on both of us and be scientifically valid, doesn’t matter who pays to get a person in space in this regard.
Q: What do you think of space tourism as an industry? Do you think it’s a viable business and if so, how and why?
A: Well, viable compared to what is an important consideration. I would say that space tourism is the only profitable proposition for manned flight. Communications and scientific research can be done by unmanned craft with no risk to human life and they do a great job. I think that we’re overselling human spaceflight when we talk about Tang-like benefits.
Q: What do you think would be the ultimate trip for a space tourist in the next 5 to 10 years?
A: I think weightless flights will be the most common space experience and I think that they will be very popular. The next step will be sub-orbital flights and they’ll be very popular too. I think a really fantastic trip would be in an elliptical orbit around the Moon. Just to see the Moon close up would be very exiting but for space tourists but a landing on the moon is very unrealistic. It would be an exciting thing to do a spacewalk while in orbit. You’d have to get a younger person than me to do it though.
Q: What do you think of sub-orbital space tourism ventures like XCOR and Virgin Galactic?
A: I think it’s fantastic. It will be like the internet. Some business models [for space tourism] will succeed and others will fail. I hope that nobody gets hurt in the process though because space is not a benign place. Weightlessness for a few minutes is very pleasant but for the long term it has a risk attached. There’s also radiation which you have to take into account. So before we go into space we need to learn a lot about it.
Q: How did you deal with space sickness while in orbit?
A: I actually didn’t get space sick and I think that’s great because I’m a data point which can be used to figure out what causes space sickness, who gets it and how to mitigate it. So that’s my contribution; to be an experimental subject.