Charles Simonyi is not an astronaut, but he plays one in real life. Best known as the co-developer of Microsoft’s flagship workstation programs, Excel and Word, Simonyi also is probably the most well-traveled billionaire in history. He is the only non-astronaut ever to go to space twice.
Simonyi will discuss his “Return to Space” on Thursday, May 6, at 4:30 p.m. at the Institute for Advanced Study. Visit www.ias.edu for more information on this free event.
On his website, www.charlesinspace.com, Simonyi answers questions from people around the world. In describing his experiences, Simonyi, ever the problem solver writes: “The ride is not that different than being in a helicopter at the start and later it is like a high-performance aircraft pulling Gs. When I first saw the earth in its full majesty the thought did occur to me that it will be a complex enterprise to get back there. But it was even more complex to get out.”
Simonyi says he volunteered for a number of experiments that were planned by the various space organizations, but could not perform them mostly because of the lack of astronaut time under his belt.
Born in Budapest, Hungary, where his father was a professor of electrical engineering at Technical University, Simonyi first dabbled in computers as a high school student. He worked part-time as a night watchman at a computer laboratory that housed a mainframe for the Soviet Union. An engineer at the lab taught him about computers, and by the time he left high school, he had learned enough to build a system that he sold to the government, according to the 2007 biography “Patterns of Discovery” by Peter Alesso, Craig Smith, and James Burke.
In 1966 Simonyi was hired by A/S Regnecentralen, a Danish technology firm, that sent him to the UC-Berkeley two years later. He earned his bachelor’s in engineering mathematics and statistics in 1972.
Simonyi then went to Stanford for graduate studies and was hired by Xerox, where he co-developed the Alto, the world’s first personal computer. He earned his Ph.D. in computer science from Stanford in 1977 with a dissertation on a software project management technique called “metaprogramming,” which allows computers to communicate with each other directly, rather than through a manager or programmer.
In 1981 Simonyi applied for a job at Microsoft, interviewing with Bill Gates himself. There he oversaw the company’s software applications department, developing Word and Excel. In 2002 he left Microsoft to co-found, with business partner Gregor Kiczales, a company called Intentional Software, which is based in Hungary and Washington State. The company markets the “intentional programming” concepts Simonyi developed at Microsoft Research, in which software seeks to match its actions with the original intentions of the programmer.
A philanthropist since 1995, Simonyi created the $50 million Charles Simonyi Fund for Arts and Sciences for the Seattle area in 2004. In 2007 he became one of the first civilians to buy a ride into outer space, aboard a Russian Soyuz TMA-10. Last March, aboard Soyuz TMA-14, he made a second trip to the International Space Station.