Not everyone gets to play volleyball with Martha Stewart—especially when Stewart is the volleyball. But that's exactly what the man she calls her "very, very good friend," software billionaire Charles Simonyi, and other passengers did Jan. 7, gently lofting Stewart into the air aboard a Boeing 727 modified to simulate gravity-free conditions in space.
It wasn't all fun and games, though. After six months of training that started a few months after that zero-gravity flight with Stewart, Simonyi, 58, blasted off April 7 from a former Soviet rocket base in Kazakhstan to become the world's fifth space tourist aboard a mission to the International Space Station. Stewart, who has known the Hungarian-born former Microsoft executive and self-described "space nerd" for more than a decade, was on hand to witness the takeoff. After bidding him good luck through a window designed to quarantine Simonyi and his mission-mates against last-minute infection, Stewart watched the Soyuz TMA-10 rocket streak skyward at 11:31 p.m. with a blast of smoke and flame that lit the sky above the barren steppe orange. "You are out of this world," Stewart told him two days later from mission control outside Moscow after Simonyi entered the space station. He'll spend 10 days participating in experiments and experiencing weightlessness, especially in his wallet: the trip cost him close to $25 million.
Simonyi, No. 891 on Forbes's world billionaires list, doesn't seem to mind. "It's a very interesting project and I'm superhappy to do it," he says. "I'm trying to increase interest in civilian space flight."
Toward that end, Simonyi has endured testing, studying and stomach-turning conditioning. The cramped rocket, with a toilet that flushes with air pressure instead of water, and the roomier space station will no doubt feel cozy compared with conditions on a survival drill in which Simonyi spent two days in the woods, slept in the rain, washed his face in a stream and ate dry cottage cheese. Discussing the prospects of life in orbit, he told PEOPLE prelaunch, "It's a structured life, something I can learn from. Martha told me she learned a lot from her structured life"—her five months in prison for obstruction of justice, that is—"and if she can do it, I can do it." Simonyi was so excited about his trip he confessed to workers fitting his space suit that "I feel like a woman must feel when getting her wedding dress," he wrote on his Web site CharlesInSpace.com. Anousheh Ansari, 40, a Dallas businesswoman who paid to fly a similar mission last September, says he won't be disappointed. "You see this beautiful blue globe with white patches of clouds against a very dark universe. I never felt such freedom. I can't wait to see how this experience changes him."
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