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Simonyi shares space experiences at UW

Your Seattle Astronomy correspondent has at least one thing in common with software executive and billionaire philanthropist Charles Simonyi: neither of us expects to be able to receive spousal clearance for a flight in space. Simonyi has a couple of legs up, having already taken Soyuz flights to and from the International Space Station in 2007 and 2009.

Simonyi spoke about his experiences during a talk titled “Practicalities of Orbital Space Tourism” last week at the University of Washington. It was the first of a series of lectures scheduled this fall celebrating the 50th anniversary of the founding of the university’s Department of Astronomy.

Simonyi

Space tourist Charles Simonyi spoke about his experiences during a lecture Sept. 29, 2015 at the University of Washington. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Simonyi acknowledged that the cost of going into Earth orbit is prohibitive for almost every individual. Speculation is that he shelled out $25 million to go on his 2007 flight and another $35 million to return to the ISS two years later. On top of the financial cost, he spent eight months training for the first flight, learning the spacecraft, studying Russian, and going through a dizzying and often invasive series of medical tests and examinations. His second flight took just three months of training because he already knew a lot.

Would he go again?

“Now I have a family to think about,” Simonyi said, smiling at his wife seated in the second row of the lecture room at Kane Hall.

“I would have to do eight months training again,” he said, because the Russians are using a different spacecraft. “I think I’m getting too old for that. It’s not easy and that would be a big obstacle.”

Still, the draw is great.

“Let’s assume the price didn’t go up, they didn’t require training, my wife lets me go,” he said to laughter. “I would do it!”

Simonyi said a big reason he wanted to fly in space was to support space exploration. Space tourists pumped more than $100 million into the Russian space program at a time that it was strapped for cash. He also did it to popularize science, he said, though interestingly he’s a bit skeptical about sending humans to space to do science because of the enormous cost. The believes simple wanderlust is a great reason to go into orbit.

“A tourist is a very honest broker. The tourist says, ‘Send me to space and I will pay you,'” Simonyi noted. “I think space tourism will be a major factor in promoting space travel because of this self-justifying property that it has.”

Soyuz TMA-14

This Soyuz capsule TMA-14, which took Charles Simonyi to the International Space Station in 2009, is on display at the Museum of Flight. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Some astronauts get a big thrill at the moment of launch into space, but Simonyi found it to be fairly routine to be sitting in the capsule at blastoff.

“It’s not as dramatic as you think from the inside,” he said. “From the outside it’s incredible; I’ve seen it. From the inside it’s like being in an elevator and somebody pushed the button.”

It’s hard to say when space tourism will fall into the price range of those of us whose net worths are less than Simonyi’s $1.4 billion. He noted that these days it costs about $10,000 to send a kilogram of mass into orbit. If the price could be driven down to about $100 per kilogram, then a space tourist might get to orbit for $100,000, which Simonyi called a “reasonable ticket.”

“That’s what the suborbital people are basically pricing their services at,” he noted. “It’s a lot of money, but if it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience I think people would consider it seriously.”

“Those numbers are not here, and they’re not going to be here for quite a while,” Simonyi said. “That is the bad news.”

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UW astro anniversary events highlight week’s calendar

The celebration of the 50th anniversary of the University of Washington Department of Astronomy goes into full swing with a couple of interesting lectures this week.

Space Tourism

CharlesSimonyiMediaPhoto

Dr. Charles Simonyi

Space traveler, philanthropist, and high-tech pioneer Dr. Charles Simonyi will give a talk titled “Practicalities of Orbital Space Tourism” at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 29 in room 120 of Kane Hall on the University of Washington campus in Seattle. Simonyi will discuss his experiences with orbital spaceflight in 2007 and 2009 and what this portends for future orbital space tourism. The event is free and open to the public, but registration is required.

Origins of nebulae

Balick

UW Prof. Bruce Balick speaking prior to a talk by James Peebles at the UW in May. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Astronomy Day was officially Sept. 19, but the Museum of Flight continues the observance this Thursday, Oct. 1. One of the evening’s events will be “Star Formation and Nebulae as Cosmic Science and Song.” UW astronomy professor Bruce Balick will give a talk about the origins of nebulae, followed by a preview of Nan Avant‘s multimedia composition “Bijoux” which showcases some of the more spectacular nebulae ever discovered. Both will be held starting at 6 p.m. in the Charles Simonyi Space Gallery at the museum. The event is a preview of the UW Department of Astronomy’s multimedia Origins concert coming up on Nov. 7.

In addition, local science and astronomy clubs will be at the museum Oct. 1 to share their knowledge of the heavens, and will offer views of the evening sky through their telescopes, weather permitting. Visitors also will be able to marvel at the wonders of the night sky in the museum’s portable planetarium. All events are free, part of the museum’s free first Thursday program from 5 p.m. until 9 p.m.

TAS and cosmic collisions

The Tacoma Astronomical Society holds one of its public nights at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 3 at the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College. Society members will give a presentation about “Cosmic Collisions,” and they will have telescopes on hand for observing if the weather cooperates.

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Preserving history at UW observatory

The semimonthly open houses at the Theodor Jacobsen Observatory at the University of Washington are over for the year. When they resume again in the spring the observatory may include a little more local history. The UW Astronomy Department has recently regained jurisdiction over the one-time office of the late professor after whom the facility is named, and is looking to spruce up the room with historical artifacts and interactive exhibits.

Jacobsen's office

The long-time UW astronomy professor’s name is still on the door of his former office in the namesake Theodor Jacobsen Observatory. Efforts are under way to make the office a historical exhibit. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

While Jacobsen’s name remains painted on the door of the office, it had for a number of years been used as a check-in space for custodians university-wide. Occasional efforts over the years to return the office to historical astronomical uses came to naught, according to Dr. Ana Larson, UW lecturer and Jacobsen Observatory director who heads up the public outreach program at the observatory. Recently, Larson said, custodians scored space in the new Paccar Hall nearby and observatory buffs swooped in to return the Jacobsen office to astronomical uses.

With the space in hand, the big stumbling block for turning it into an historical exhibit is cash. Larson figures the budget for the project is at about -$200; she recently purchased an old oak desk for $70 out-of-pocket and installed it in the office. It is certainly not Jacobsen’s desk, but fits with the period. A mini-exhibit is already up in the office, including an old briefcase of Jacobsen’s, a star-atlas notebook, and an armillary on the desk.

TJO desk

A small exhibit with a few artifacts of Theodor Jacobsen is already up in the late professor’s former office. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

It seems most fitting to set up a tribute to Jacobsen. For nearly four decades he was the only professor in the UW astronomy department, which he served from 1928 until his retirement in 1971. Retirement didn’t mean that Jacobsen quit working. He published his final book just a few years before his death in 2003 at age 102.

The observatory already is listed on the state register of historical buildings. It is the second oldest structure on the UW campus, and was built in 1895 with sandstone blocks left over from the construction of Denny Hall. The observatory’s six-inch Warner and Swasey telescope with Brashear objective, built around 1892, is still functional, having been restored in the late 1990s by members of the Seattle Astronomical Society, volunteers from which still operate the scope on open house nights. Light pollution and the large trees that have grown up around the observatory limit the scope’s use somewhat, but it is an effective outreach tool; the open houses at the observatory, featuring observing when weather permits and talks by astronomy students, have proven to be popular.

The office project has a modest price tag. Larson figures as little as $1,500 would get them going with some decent display cases, other furniture, posters, and interactive exhibits. She plans to pitch the university for funds, but budgets are tight. She may also consider some sort of crowdfunding effort. If you would like to donate to help with the project, visit the Jacobsen Observatory website to find out how.

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