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3/26/2009
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Next Stop For Tech Entrepreneurs: Space Travel

Microsoft software pioneer Charles Simonyi's second flight to the International Space Station is the latest trend for executives with deep pockets.

What is it about space travel that appeals to so many computer and high-technology entrepreneurs?

While software pioneer Charles Simonyi is on his second trip to the International Space Station (ISS), other high-tech entrepreneurs are basking in their successful space trips, and still others are preparing to become civilian astronauts.

Space travel seems to have a special appeal to computer and software entrepreneurs, who can afford the $25 million for a round-trip ticket into space. Some are even building their own space-related companies, while others like Simonyi are simply paying for a ticket.

"We applaud Charles on his continued commitment and investment to commercial spaceflight," said Eric Anderson, president and CEO of Space Adventures, the company that organized Simonyi's trip. "Having a repeat orbital client demonstrates to the world that participating in a space mission is truly a magnificent and awe-inspiring experience."

All it takes is a sense of adventure and deep pockets -- very deep pockets. Mark Shuttleworth, the founder of the open source Ubuntu Project has made the ISS trip, flying as a cosmonaut onboard the Soyuz TM34 mission. Before Ubuntu, he sold his Thawte security and cryptography company to VeriSign. Last fall, video-game pioneer Richard Allen Garriott made the trip to the ISS onboard Soyuz TMA-13. He's a celebrity among computer gamers as Lord British in Ultima and as General British in Tabula Rasa.

The high-tech industry has produced its first woman astronaut in the person of Anousheh Raissian, a principal in Telecom Technologies before it was acquired by Sonus Networks.

The most interesting high-tech entrepreneur may also be the most secretive. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, has been building his Blue Origin operation in a remote area of Texas. Blue Origin's vertical-takeoff, vertical-landing rocket ship is being designed to take paying customers on suborbital space rides. Blue Origin's timetable has called for commercial trips to get under way next year. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is a backer of Burt Rutan's Scaled Composites, developer of suborbital vehicles.

Other prominent computer industry figures that have expressed interest in space flight include Google co-founder Sergey Brin, and Esther Dyson, venture capitalist and industry commentator,

Simonyi may qualify as the computer industry's longest-running promoter of space travel. As a boy in his native Hungary, Simonyi was intrigued by space travel, and at age 13 he represented Hungary as an aspiring cosmonaut, winning a trip to Moscow, where he met some of the early Soviet cosmonauts. In the United States, Simonyi led programming teams that developed Microsoft Word and Excel.

At Microsoft, Simonyi built up a stock fortune of more than $1 billion -- enough to pay for plenty of space trips. Alas, according to Forbes, Simonyi's net worth has gone down as he has gone up -- he was ranked in the 374th wealth position by Forbes in 2006 and in the 891th position in 2007, and he's since dropped off the Forbes list. Even so, he isn't likely to feel the $25 million price of a space ticket very much.

Simonyi's first trip to the ISS took place in 2007, when he became the fifth private citizen to travel in space.


Each year, InformationWeek honors the nation's 500 most innovative users of business technology. Companies with $250 million or more in revenue are invited to apply for the 2009 InformationWeek 500 before May 1.

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