Esthr's Charles Simonyi launch tour
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Flying: Beyond A to B
Aspen Institute • June 20-22 • Aspen, Colorado

Charles Simonyi Launch Blog

Charles Simonyi's launch - my excellent EDventure!

04.08.2007 - I'm writing from snowy (!) Moscow, where I have just returned from watching Charles Simonyi fly into space with two other cosmonauts, Oleg Kotov and Fyodor Yurchikhin. You can find out all about this at www.charlesinspace.com (though the site is currently a bit overloaded). You can see my photos (with commentary) on Flickr.

And yes, to cut to the chase, it was amazing and I want to go to space myself.

I have four interests in this matter - as a longtime friend of Charles, eager to see him fulfill a dream; as a paying client of Space Adventures, which organized both Charles's flight and the accompanying tour to watch the launch for about 50 friends and relatives; as an investor in Space Adventures; and as the organizer of Flight School, the theme of which is the customer experience in private, commercial air and space travel.

I'll leave it to others such as the New York Times to talk about the glories of space travel or to track Charles's progress. I'm interested in the business of the tour itself. There are some things I don't know or can't say, but the outlines are these: Charles paid on the order of $25 million to go into space, including medical assessment, physical and book training (mostly in Russia), a launch tour for a certain number of his accompanying friends, as well as the space flight itself. When it became apparent that Charles had an unusual number of friends, SA saw a business opportunity and offered the tour to a larger group for between $13,000 and $19,000 (first class or business class, single or double occupancy).

It happened to almost coincide with a board meeting I had in Moscow on April 16 (at least until they moved the launch from April 12 to April 7!), so I decided to go. I wanted to have fun, for sure, but I also wanted to cast a critical eye on SA and how it ran things, how it could run things better. As for space itself, I figured there was no way I couldn't learn a lot, starting with space toilets and on to the difference between the Soyuz and the Space Shuttle - everything from operating model (one-time vs. reusable), size (7.5 metric tons vs. 100,000), to business model (government program vs. paying tourists welcome).

In a sense, Space Adventures is offering its own company on this tour. All the senior employees were there, doing everything from carrying bags and scoring scarce toothbrushes to compensate for lost bags, to recounting space lore and negotiating behind the scenes with arbitrary security officials. Pat Hoar, principal engineer for program development, formerly worked at the FAA, where he worked on certification of the 727s for the "weightless" flights flown by Zero-G Corporation. Chris Faranetta, vp of the orbital spaceflight program, ran US operations for Rocket Space Corporation Energia Corp., the Russian government-owned company that actually operates the Soyuz missions. Now he is in effect liaison back to his old employer, and also informal tour guide for bus no. 2 (my bus). Sergey Kostenko, head of the SA Russia office, is trained as a cosmonaut and led Cosmopolis XXI, a Russian contender for the X Prize, before joining Space Adventures. But none of these people are described (or at least findable) on the SA website, which is a failure of marketing (and made me do a bit of extra work to check the details!). It means a lot when your tour guide (Chris) can casually mention the cosmonauts he knows and talk about the time he was sneaked into Baikonur during Soviet times to watch the launch of a secret anti-US spy satellite.

And then of course there was Greg Olsen, previously a client (as the third "space tourist") and now presumably a paid or at least comped team member, ready to mingle with the paying clients and also to give an (excellent) account of his own experiences.

The most frequent question for Greg was (I wondered it too): "Don't you wish it was you going again instead of Charles?" His answer was (as far as I could tell), "Sure, but it's also great just to watch. I'll have to sell another company to afford it!"

Getting beyond friends and family

The whole thing is curiously incestuous - but the explicit goal is to grow beyond the small coterie of driven rich who are currently involved. Indeed, it's fair to say that SA's biggest sales challenge is that its best prospects are mostly busy enlarging their fortunes rather than sitting back and enjoying them.

But let me get on with the story...

Most of us "friends of Charles" arrived last Wednesday, and stayed up long enough for a welcome reception where various people I would later learn to recognize told us about the flight, about Charles and about the context. I sorely missed name badges. They may destroy intimacy, but they are transparent: They acknowledge that people may not know one another, and they help those people recognize one another. Especially in a group such as this (Martha Stewart, various Microsoft millionaires, and others) privacy may be an issue, but after all the point is to mingle. By the end of the three days, I knew most everyone by sight, but I wasn't sure of everyone's name and there were many times I wished I had a name-badge hint. (Yes, several of us mentioned this to SA. This was their largest group ever, and I suspect they will change their policy.)

We spent most of Wednesday visiting Star City, where the cosmonauts get their training. I had been there back in 1989, part of an informal delegation of about four people arranged informally by a Russian friend. Indeed, it's ironic that Space Adventures has to go to the Russian government to fulfill its commercial mission. Both in 1989 and just now, we got the kind of access in Russia that we could not have had as private visitors in the US, ranging from our tour of Star City. In 1989 I actually got to try on a space suit (very snug!). This time, we just got to take photographs. But we crept up on an actual cosmonaut in training, diligently trying to concentrate in his tiny capsule while we snapped away.

The main message we got was "This is not easy!" Charles has undergone about 900 hours of training, some in Russian (so he can talk to his fellow cosmonauts), some in theory, but much of it in a wide variety of emergency procedures that with luck he will never use. But, noted Greg Olsen, "When we had depressurization on [my mission] TMA-7, I didn't have to think for a moment which button to push" to start a flow of oxygen to fix the situation.

We saw the water tank where the cosmonauts train on taking equipment apart in space. And we ran into another astronaut, Nicole Stott, who was there in training (NASA-Russian Space Agency cooperation) and joined us for lunch. "I like it better here," she said [paraphrase]. "There's a platform that raises and lowers the equipment, so you can walk around it while it's dry before you try to handle it underwater." That's not like cheating on a test; it's like increasing someone's knowledge of the equipment by letting them get a better look at it.

But my favorite was the huge bottle-shaped centrifuge, which is used to either weed out unfit people and to make the fit *more* fit, by getting them used to multiple Gs. They insert you from the side in a little capsule and then swing you around at a few revolutions a minute. FWIW, we learned, it's much easier to take gravity when you are prone or curled up on your back like a fetus; the big problem is not that you can't lift yourself but that all the blood drains from your head. But other than ascent and descent, when you are weightless, the challenge is the opposite; your head gets engorged with blood and that can give you a heavy-headed, head-achy feeling. Fellow tour-goer Sandy Hill and I both think Space Adventures should offer a turn in the centrifuge as a separate ride, a heaviness counterpart to the Zero-G weightless flights. We had no idea what the RSA would charge...but we did note that the machine was idle while we were there!

Next post: Baikonur. Martha Stewart joins us, we visit Charles, and we get to see SA's biggest operational challenge for ourselves: official unpredictability.

Simonyi launch tour - Baikonur

Continuing the saga of the Simonyi launch tour...

04.14.2007 - Thursday: On-bus networking: the quiz

It was so absorbing that I didn't want to take the time out to write while it was happening. But I did post some photos, and I'm putting up more. You can see them on Flickr.

And besides, I'm writing about it partly as a review - how did Space Adventures make the experience memorable? - rather than as a blow-by-blow.

In that vein, I forgot to mention that as we returned from Star City, Space Adventures pulled one of those clever little tricks that separate the professionals from the amateurs - and that almost made up for the missing name badges! We were going back into the Moscow city center through fairly heavy traffic, and we were already delayed in leaving - long lunch, gift shop, etc. Being an old Russia hand, I had of course discounted their promise to get us back into the city by 3.30 - but I *had* made an appointment for 5 pm. In the end, we got back around 5.10 pm.

So, we're sitting on the bus and Chris Faranetta, vp of flight operations, and Akane McCarthy, director of program operations, announce a quiz. Papers are handed out; teams are formed. (Thus I got to know the Danish couple sitting just ahead of me.) The quiz was pretty simple-minded; all the questions - the staff claimed, anyway! - had been answered in the day's commentary and presentations. Cheating allowed; it was fine to look into the commemorative booklet outlining the context and plans for Charles's launch. What are the names of the two cosmonauts accompanying Charles into space? How long until he gets weightless? How many nations are partners in the International Space Station?

I had listened fairly intently, but the quiz also impelled me to riffle through the book. Without really noticing, I learned a lot. In the end, our team came in second - and all members of the top three teams got memorial Matryoshka dolls of the three cosmonauts: Soyuz commander Oleg Kotov on the outside, Mission commander Fyodor Yurchikhin and, nested inside, Charles Simonyi.

Friday: Baikonur here we come

The next morning we headed to Vnukovo Airport, the third Moscow airport and the one least used commercially. The bus took a wrong turn and we had various other minor misadventures, but we got there in the end, into a crowded waiting room that clearly wasn't meant for a group our size. Our plane was Soyuz-Atlant, a three-class 70-seater that belongs to the Mayor of Moscow. He rents it out often, apparently; we aren't *that* special! (He is known as the Mayor Daley of Russia.)

Once landed in Baikonur and past various security checkpoints, we headed straight to the launch site, where we were able to get so close to the already-standing rocket that it far exceeded the viewing angle of my camera. We milled around taking pictures against a magnificent stormy-looking sky; nothing was forbidden. The Americans wanted snaps with Martha; the Hungarians wanted snaps with Charles's brother; everyone wanted snaps with the tower looming behind them. Even one formerly gruff security guy now let me snap him in his splendid hat. Just as we were about to leave, the skies opened and it started hailing. But before we could all get herded onto the bus, the hail stopped, the sun came out and a brilliant rainbow appeared, framing the launch structure. As I said, Space Adventures has good connections!

Visiting Charles

After checking into the Sputnik hotel - which was much nicer than SA's description of it as "clean and comfortable"! - we walked around some barriers for a scheduled visit to see Charles in quarantine. "Don't touch the cosmonauts!" was the reminder of the day.

This was mostly a photo op and we were divided into two groups. At this point we saw what Space Adventures had presumably been seeing all along: absolutely arbitrary officialdom granting access on a whimsical basis. The guards stopped us at the gate, made us wait, counted off heads, made us wait some more, and then waved us through impatiently. This gave us a sense of how much prep SA must have done to arrange our outings: Their job was to make it all look smooth, but on occasion the cracks showed through. Every hour of "experience" took about two elapsed hours to happen - and probably took days to arrange.

I was in the second group of two, with Martha Stewart, so we also got the majority of the cameras - and Charles and Martha mugging for the cameras. It was lots of fun, but very brief. Charles said he felt great, had been sleeping well... and looked terrific! I showed off and spoke a couple of words in Hungarian; Martha mentioned the Alain Ducasse on-board dinner she had organized.

Then we had a nice Russian-cafeteria-style dinner in the hotel, which had a bar that by all accounts stayed lively until 3 am - but without me.

Saturday: the pool

I got up around 7 (5 am Moscow time) and went to the front desk for the key to the pool. Its official hours were 6.30 pm to 11 pm (i.e.4.5 hours out of 24). But that brings to mind a famous saying: "The severity of Russian laws is mitigated by the fact that they are rarely enforced." In other words, if you smile nicely rather than complain, the authorities will most likely accede to your wishes.

The Kazakh "cultural event"

After breakfast, we went out to the lawn behind the hotel (through the hotel's electrical generator room) for an hour or two of singing, dancing, camel-riding and other festivities. It was oddly charming and at the same time painful, because so much of it was patently fake. The loudspeaker was turned up to ear-splitting levels, and there were a couple of Soviet-style speeches and poems - first in Kazakh and then repeated in Russian and English - about culture and friendship and the wings of freedom. Cynic (or disappointed idealist) that I am, I found this uplifting material a bit hard to take, and I spent most of my time taking photos not of the performers but of the backstage: the kids' teacher/choreographer in her high-heeled boots and short skirt; the proud parents, distinctly unmodern; and finally, when it was over, the kids in their street clothes carrying their ethnic costumes.

That was when the real fun began: After their performances, the kids still had lots of energy and began chasing each other around, showing off their gymnastics and getting us to play with them. David Mohler, an orthopedic surgeon best known as Heidi Roizen's trailing spouse in Silicon Valley, showed off his prowess at acrobatic dance. Tamas, Charles' brother, played ring-around-a-rosie with three gymnasts, two in shiny uniform and one in jeans and a sweater. I demonstrated various contortions that the gymnasts politely applauded. The parents were proud; the teacher hugged her charges with obvious affection; the camel kept taking turns around the garden with a tourist rider astride. It was tremendous fun and it had nothing to do with space travel... or with modern Kazakhstan. But I hope it provided a little boost to some of the local economy.

As it happens, I asked three of the gymnasts what they wanted to be: a model, a dancer, and a translator. None of them mentioned science or industry, though they came from Baikonur, where the economy revolves around the space program. Eventually we went inside to hear Greg Olsen talk about his own experiences aloft, as the third private space traveler (and SA's third client). This was great stuff; he had videos and slides and a dry sense of humor as he gave us a tour of his days aloft - and a preview of what Charles is experiencing even as I write this. I couldn't help wishing that the kids outside had been invited to this part; perhaps it would have raised their aspirations.

As I mentioned, I'm an investor in Space Adventures, so I'm biased. But that also means I have some influence: Maybe someday SpaceAdventures will sponsor a contest in science and English proficiency, and let the winners attend a lecture by Charles Simonyi along with a tour group for the seventh or eight space traveler...

Okay, cut to the chase

After that, things sped up. We crossed the barriers between the Sputnik and Cosmonauts' Hotels again to stand outside the Cosmonauts' Hotel again and watch the cosmonauts come out and board their bus. It was a slow madhouse - and an excellent opportunity for bonding with rest of the group, with press people, with a Harvard alumni group led by Walt Cunningham if I heard right.

It was all a curious mixture of the formal and the homespun. Various unknown (to me) people emerged from the hotel, carrying champagne in plastic shopping bags, briefcases stuffed with important documents (or perhaps with sausage). They all pretended to ignore the waiting hordes...and of course we hordes were interested only in the cosmonauts. Finally, a cleric in robes came out, and then the cosmonauts. They hurried to the bus, pursued by camera men and waving wives and plaintive children. Off they went!

Next: Back to the launch pad

Simonyi Launch Tour - The Launch Itself!

Continuing the saga of the Simonyi launch tour...

04.15.2007 - Saturday: the launch prep

After watching the cosmonauts leave their hotel, we had an early dinner (about three hours after lunch) and headed off in our own bus for the space museum on the way to the launch pad.

But no! It turned out that deputy prime minister Sergei Ivanov (widely rumored to be Putin's successor) had suddenly decided to put in an appearance in Baikonur, and that turned everything upside down. He was in the space museum, so it was closed to anyone else.

Instead, we went straight to site 254, where the cosmonauts were making final preparations...or perhaps more precisely, where they were being prepared. At this point, they weren't doing much independently other than slipping secret items into their space suits, which apparently is a long-standing tradition. Rumor has it (and this is really a rumor; the rest of what I say here is pretty well fact-checked) that Charles has his own contraband copy of Ride of the Valkyries. Instead of running things, the cosmonauts were being checked and rechecked, stuffed into space suits, and brought out for ceremonial moments. (Pictures here.)

We sat in the bus for a while and then word came that we cold go in for a last glimpse in groups of 10. One group would get special VIP passes to go in, and would then come out and give their passes to the next group, and so on. (Though as it happens the passes say "Soyuz TMA Specialists." TMA stands for Transport Modified Anthropomorphic; that was one of the question on the quiz.)

I was in the second group, which ended up being the last. The other people stayed on the buses for quite some time, while we stood outside in a courtyard waiting to be let in. With Ivanov in town, however, everything turned quite "difficult." The planned meetings with the public were curtailed or canceled, while Ivanov and a few other favored local press got inside.

Eventually someone discovered that if you stood in the right corner next to the windows, you could peek in between the slats in the window blinds. Cameramen rushed over, but there really wasn't much to see. I discovered a cigarette-trash can to stand on - a little unsteady but helpful nonetheless. A functionary came over; I thought he was going to shoo me away, but no, he politely emptied the butt-and-water-filled can (into a corner) and turned it over for me, making it a steadier perch. We milled about for what must have been an hour or two, while other people - press, dignitaries of all kinds and eventually the rest of our own group - accumulated in the courtyard. A busload of students unfurled their banner: "Dream, trust, study and win!"

And suddenly, out came the cosmonauts, and Ivanov, and a host of other notables. They marched to the front of an empty space, said a few words, and headed for their bus. The press broke ranks, the public followed, and there was a nice melee as well-wishers shouted and children cried, but nobody touched!

To the launch site

Back to our buses we went, and on to the launch site. By now it was growing dark, ahead of the 11.31 pm launching. Everyone kept saying how exciting a night launch would be...

We milled about in the dark, experimented with a toilet (it was not a hole in the ground, but it had no water and no, I did not take a photo, though Ed Fries did.)

....and the sublime

So now we get to the magic moment. Through some wizardry of Space Adventures, we got to a viewing perch that gave us clear sight of the rocket. Just across from us - it felt almost close enough to touch - stood the rocket, frozen gases steaming out of it under the spotlights. We could hear a countdown, and then the whole thing was flooded with light as fuel rather than air spilled into the open. There was a dull roar, and it got brighter than anything I have ever seen. I could almost feel the heat on my face, and suddenly a bright blob detached itself from the pool of light and roared into the sky. I lay down on my back to watch it rise. Eventually, probably three or four kilometers high, it punched through a thin layer of clouds which exploded into a mottled sheet of light. (A few pictures here; same link as before.)

Slowly it grew dimmer, but the afterimage of the launch stayed in my eyes for the next half-hour.

Everyone hugged everyone; it was magnificent. We were rushing to get to the airport, fearful that Ivanov and his crew would close it down, but we couldn't leave without a round of champagne first. Then we made our way back to the comfort of our bus, crazy with awe and delight.

Yes, it was better than any of us imagined. Even those who had seen a day launch were awestruck by the majesty of the night launch... I hunger to see such a sight again...and I will, one way or another.

Heading home

Back at the airport, it was now almost 2 am, and as luck would have it Ivanov had beaten us there, but his plane was already pulling out and our way was clear to get on the flight after a brief encounter with passport control. (Baikonur is formally in Kazakhstan, though you don't need a Kazakh visa to get in from Moscow. However, you do need a Russian visa to get back into Moscow. Just one of those things!)

Looking at the schedule beforehand, I had wondered how I could sleep on the 3-hour flight home ... On the flight, I had no interest in sleep and joined in the general merriment. Imagine a college dorm party squeezed into the long tube of an airplane. It was great! Everyone was as pleased as if they had done it themselves, and I'm sure the SA folks were also congratulating themselves on an amazingly smooth adventure. No one was lost; miffs over who got on and off the various buses and into the various events were forgotten. We had all witnessed a miracle.

Next: Watching the docking at Mission Control two days later...

Simonyi launch conclusion - mission control

The last installment about the Simonyi launch tour. NOTE: He and the other two cosmonauts landed safely on Saturday; see www.charlesinspace.com.

04.23.2007 - The launch was really amazing - a fest of engineering, spectacle and raw energy. By contrast, the visit to Mission Control (TsUP in Russian) was more human and even sweet, in its way. The physical scene was unimpressive, but we could see Charles and the other cosmonauts on camera and communicate with them.

We went to TsUp (for Tstentr Upravlenia Poletov, or Center for the Control of Flights) on Monday night. Somehow, I had been expecting some small intimate little group in a control room, but of course it was a public spectacle, with about 100 or 150 people crowded into a viewing gallery above the mission control floor, where staff were actually working, and across from a giant screen full of various displays: maps, countdown times, video feeds and the like. The people ranged from our own group to dignitaries from the Russian government and the US Embassy, cosmonauts' families, press and the like. We milled around for quite some time, taking photographs, some of us greeting old friends. This seems to be the occasion for Russia's space community to reconnect.

The countdown board showed the time until docking, and then as it happened we saw both a fuzzy video and a nice clear diagram illustrating what was happening. But the moment of magic came about half an hour later, when the hatch separating the Soyuz launch capsule from the main body of the space station was opened, and the cosmonauts started coming through to be greeted joyfully by the three six-month space veterans they were about to replace.

Human magic

For all the majesty of the space launch, this was the more special moment: Three human beings came back into our sight, safe and sound after their journey from the launch that had flooded the night sky with so much light. We got to go down to the floor of Mission Control to watch this, Martha Stewart trailed by her camera people. (All this will be on her show sometime in May, I believe.)

After a visit to the display room floor and a toast, we trooped back upstairs for the communication session, in which a few people would pick up some antique-looking phones plugged into the Russian communications net and be able to talk to Charles directly. For all the Russians' rocket wizardry, they had a direct link with the space station for less than a third of each orbit, through an area marked on the giant map with a red border. We waited for the airship to enter that range and suddenly the cosmonauts came into fuzzy view. Susan Hutchison, who runs Charles's foundation, was the first on the phone. "Weightlessness becomes you, Charles," she remarked, referring to how lack of gravity makes a person's head swell slightly with extra fluid, filling out the wrinkles. (Gotta try that sometime!) Then came Martha, talking casually in front of the crowd with the practiced ease of a television host.

And then Mrs. Yurchikin, wife of one of the cosmonauts: "My darling! My sweetie pie! My only one!" she squealed into the phone, oblivious to the crowds around her. The cosmonauts blushed (you could see it over the video, which by then had come into better focus). And the assembled dignitaries, ribbons and uniforms and all, burst into laughter.

Then followed another magic moment, as Charles's brother picked up the phone. He spoke in Hungarian, but in rough translation he said the following: "For 47 years, the voice of Hungary was kept quiet [by the Soviet Union]. Now at last we are free to speak, in our own language. Now we are equals in space and in the world, on our own terms."

Humanity and freedom - what could be better?

After that, we repaired for another toast, and finally got home around 3 am.

Trip dream

All in all, this whole experience was even better than I expected. I have spent a lot of time in Russia, so I know better than most of the people on the tour how much work Space Adventures must have done to make the whole things seem effortless. But of course, just like a conference, a tour organizer adds value around something - whether it's an event such as Charles' launch or a park full of wild animals or a cruise - with talks and commentary, social activities and the like. But then it's up to the people on the tour...and in that, Charles's friends were blessed by the presence of Charles' other friends and families.

So let me end by recounting a dream I had right after the return from Baikonur:

This was not really part of the tour, but it was provoked by it and by other specifics that are fun to pick out. Part of the goal of a tour like this is to foster friendships, discovery, etc. ... to allow people to change or to reflect the change in their lives, whether it's a Swedish couple sharing a holiday with two daughters and their boyfriends; a widow having fun again, surrounded by friends; or who knows what other private experiences people were having as they mingled publicly?

For me, it was this: We left Baikonur around 2 am an hour late courtesy of Ivanov, but with the two-hour time change we still got to the hotel before 5 am. I was too cheap and the hotel too expensive to keep my room for the two days we were gone, so I was fervently hoping for an early check-in. Bless it, the Hyatt was accommodating, so I set my photos to uploading (slowly) via e-mail and went to sleep.

And then I had a dream. [For context, those who know me know that I recently left CNET, closed my long-running PC Forum IT conference, stopped writing (newsletter) Release 1.0 and have been gradually assuming an identity more as an investor than a writer/conference manager, and adding space and health care to my major interests.] I dreamt that I was in a grander version of my Hyatt room, a suite with several separate rooms. One by one clumps of people started arriving for a celebration representing Easter. At first I was embarrassed; all I had to offer was the meager fresh-fruit amenity the Hyatt had provided. But the friends brought food as a holiday offering - left-overs from their own celebrations, baskets of goodies so the place was soon full of food and conversation. The people were a dream version of those on the tour: some close friends, but most of them new friends who assumed I had always lived in this beautiful place. (The subtext here was not deception but rather a new identity reflected in my new home.)

They were all happy and lively. One group - the Swedes I think - began cooking up a huge hunk of venison in the kitchen, and everyone was running through the suite laughing and sharing the goodies just as we had done last night aboard our cramped plane, laughing and joking with launch- and champagne/Chivas-induced excitement.

In one room there were several children practicing floating (a reference to the gymnasts yesterday and of course to weightlessness). They were doing quite well, halfway up to the high ceiling, but one kid bumped into another and bounced back towards the ground. A couple of us adults started laughing gently and giving the kid fond advice: "First you have to have some clear space. Then you have to concentrate on rising." My own laughter woke me up.

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