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Ground Control

Simonyi’s fascination with space has been lifelong. As a 13-year-old, he won a competition to become Hungary’s “Junior Astronaut” and traveled to Moscow to meet a cosmonaut. As a new hire at Microsoft in 1981, he convinced cofounder Paul Allen to play hooky from developing the IBM PC’s new operating system and fly to Florida to watch the space shuttle’s first flight.

Simonyi’s coming blastoff offers him a full-circle reunion with the Soviet-era technology that set his life’s course. He has been training for months at Russia’s Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, mastering the details of space suits and space toilets, and learning Russian.

The space trip will confirm Simonyi’s status as that highly unlikely thing: a celebrity programmer. He has two jets and a pilot’s license to fly them. He turns up in the tabloids as the frequent companion of homemaking’s high priestess, Martha Stewart. He has built a 233-foot yacht with a wraparound glass-walled deck. He has funded an Oxford professorship for his friend Richard Dawkins, the Darwinian theorist.

None of this, of course, will make any difference in the outcome of Simonyi’s quest to alleviate the chronic woes of the software field. “It’s not enough to be a great programmer,” Simonyi once told Michael Hiltzik, author of a history of PARC. “You have to find a great problem.” Intentional might never deliver on its grand promises. But no one can charge Simonyi with choosing too modest a problem.

His home these days is a mansion on Lake Washington, down the shore from Bill Gates’s house, with an art gallery, a glass-enclosed swimming pool, a heliport, a computer lab with magnetically lined walls, and a lathe and drill press in the basement (to fulfill those Erector Set cravings). The house cost $10 million to build: it is tilted at a seven-degree angle and “looks like a slight earthquake hit it,” in the words of New York Times writer Patricia Leigh Brown, who marveled at its “hermetically sealed, mathematical precision” and found it “so vast that a visitor can feel like a lonely asteroid rattling around the solar system.”

“[Only] Charles would build a 20,000-square-foot home with one bedroom,” Simonyi’s dissertation advisor and PARC colleague Butler Lampson once remarked. The lone bedroom boasts a cockpit-like control center that lets Simonyi tweak all his systems–heating, entertainment, telephone, lighting, and watering–to his satisfaction. “Like a submarine,” he explained to Brown. “They all have to be green before you submerge.” There’s also a pivoting bed, which Simonyi can use to fine-tune his view–out across the lake; or over to the Seattle skyline, with its warrens of office workers wrestling with their documents and spreadsheets; or up into the starry night sky, where his latest journey will soon take him.

Scott Rosenberg is vice president of special projects at Salon.com. He is the author of Dreaming in Code.

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Credit: Brian Smale

Tagged: Computing

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