From the Iron Curtain to the Final Frontier

Charles Simonyi, 58, Microsoft billionaire and CEO of Intentional Software

By Tim Arango, Fortune writer

(Fortune Magazine) -- Charles Simonyi, the software programmer credited with developing Word and Excel, has a billion Microsoft (Charts, Fortune 500) dollars to his name, squires Martha Stewart on his arm, and last month became the fifth so-called space tourist, spending 13 days at the International Space Station.

It has been quite a ride since he was born in postwar, newly Stalinist Hungary in 1948 and escaped a life of bread lines and communist deprivation by moving to the U.S. to attend the University of California at Berkeley and Stanford. For Simonyi his latest jaunt wasn't just an ego trip, because he sees himself as a champion for private-sector space exploration.

A few days after his capsule touched down in a field in central Kazakhstan, he spoke with Fortune's Tim Arango.

What did you miss the most while you were in space?

I missed a cold beer. The first thing I got when I got back was an apple. I started to eat it with such enthusiasm, but they took it away. They really just want you to be measured and slow when you return.

Do you foresee a day when space tourism is not just the province of billionaires - when it will be as affordable as plane travel?

Yes - the only question is when. I think the emphasis is going to move from government efforts to private efforts. Many of these ideas will pay off and reduce the cost of lifting humans to space. I'm talking to [Nikolai] Sevastianov, the head of [rocket designer] Energia, and he's very intent to reduce the cost to one-third of what it is today.

The trip is said to have cost $25 million. How much of that money went toward research and how much went to Space Adventures, the company that planned the trip?

I'm not going to confirm that number, and I certainly have no idea how the money is apportioned. The way I look at it is as a contribution to space. God knows, the space business, especially in Russia, can use help. The flight itself was a bonus. It was never assured that the flight would take place. I was training for more than six months, and at any point during that time there could have been a problem that prevented me from flying.

You left Microsoft in 2002 to found Intentional Software Corp. Is there work for your firm to do within the space industry?

There is work for our company in every industry where there are complex organizations and complex procedures. Hospitals come to mind. Many structures of government. And that includes space stations, which actually are not as complex as they seem.

What's more complex: preparing for travel in space or organizing a dinner party at Martha Stewart's Turkey Hill estate?

Preparing to go to space is more complicated, but not by much.  Top of page