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Release 0.9: Charles Simonyi's launch - my excellent EDventure!

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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.