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Kansas Cosmosphere impresses visiting billionaire space tourist

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, June 30, 2013, at 11:45 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, Dec. 30, 2013, at 6:32 a.m.

Charles Simonyi flew into Wichita on Sunday, met his friend Alex Kvassay at the Colonel James Jabara Airport, and together they quickly headed to Hutchinson.

Simonyi, a Hungarian computer software executive who helped create Microsoft Office applications such as Word and Excel, is a space tourist, traveling there on a Russian craft. In fact, according to a March 2009 article in the United Kingdom’s the Guardian newspaper, he’s a billionaire and now heads his own corporation, International Software, out of Seattle.

On Sunday, he was interested in seeing Hutchinson’s Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center.

“I heard so much about it, it was on my bucket list,” Simonyi said.

He received the VIP tour from the Cosmosphere’s chief executive officer, Dick Hollowell, and Jim Remar,president and chief operating officer.

“It was an impromptu visit,” Remar said Sunday afternoon. “Obviously, he is very passionate about space exploration. We hope it inspires him to become a friend of Cosmosphere. He was amazed at the artifacts we have and the whole story we tell. He was very excited.”

So what did he think?

“It is a brilliant institution,” Simonyi said. “It is world class, absolutely. The Russian artifacts were close to my heart.”

Indeed, one of the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center’s main exhibits charts the space race during the late 1950s and 1960s between the United States and the Soviet Union. The exhibit features spacesuits, missiles and other artifacts used in the Mercury, Gemini, Vostok and Voskhod programs. And it impressed him, Simonyi said, that the Cosmosphere’s SpaceWorks is currently preserving Apollo F-1 artifacts.

“They found this in the Atlantic Ocean and are recovering them and making them available for people to see and remember,” Simonyi said. “It is amazing. I want to show it to my family and become a supporting member because I feel people should support institutions of this kind.”

Simonyi, 64, was born in Budapest, Hungary. He has lived in Seattle since 1981. The Museum of Flight in Seattle has a space gallery named after Simonyi.

Kvassay, also of Hungarian descent, is a retired vice president of international marketing for Learjet. The two met years ago when Simonyi learned to fly on a Learjet. On Sunday, he flew into Wichita in his own Dassault Falcon jet.

Simonyi is one of 500 people who have traveled in outer space. Twice he has paid for a flight into space to live two weeks aboard the International Space Station, becoming only the fifth space tourist. His first flight was in April 2007, the second in March 2009. Each trip cost between $20 million and $25 million, he said Sunday.

“It is not a benign environment. The problems with long-term weightlessness is bone loss, muscle loss, space sickness,” Simonyi said. “But our brains are pulling us there. It is up to society to decide that we want to be in space.”

There was beauty, he said, in traveling through space, particularly when the spacecraft re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere.

He had a window seat.

“First you see the fireworks. I describe it like an old Japanese ‘Godzilla’ movie where flaming chunks of matter go by the window – parts or maybe dirt or parts of the shield falling off. But then, the plasma starts – superheated air – with this rose-colored glow that looks like the spacecraft is swimming in a pool of Pepto-Bismol. I was breathing wonderful oxygen, but the craft was in this rose-colored thing with no structure to it.”

And then, there is darkness, followed by light as the re-entry shield is burned away, he said.

The Comsosphere, Simonyi said, helps capture some of that excitement.

“If I were a young person, I would spend all my waking hours there learning about space. It is amazing what they did.”

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @beccytanner.

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