With so many science-fiction film productions taking advantage of Budapest’s amazing studio facilities, and overall the favorable conditions of film production in Hungary, it’s easy to forget that in terms of real life science and scientific exploration, Hungarians have a long and illustrious history. It is well known that the core group who invented the atom bomb were largely Hungarian. It is less known that Hungary has both a pioneering astronaut who has traveled to space and can also claim one of the first space tourists.
Born in 1949, Bertalan Farkas would become one of the players in the space race between the USA and the Soviet Union. Indeed he was partially educated in Russia, graduating from the prestigious Krasnodar Military Aviation Institute. In 1978 Farkas volunteered to be a cosmonaut, and was chosen for the Soviet Intercosmos program. Ultimately, Farkas made the cut and was selected to be sent into space along with Soviet cosmonaut Valeri Kubasov. They were launched into space on the rocket Soyuz 36 on May 26, in 1980, much to the reported worry of Farkas’ family.
Farkas spent a week in space on the Salyut 6 Space Station, orbiting the Earth 124 times while conducting experiments. Upon returning to Earth, he was awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union, and took up the somewhat more earth-bound pursuits of tennis and politics.
The second Hungarian to take up space travel represented the capitalist West, and indeed enlisted a profit-making enterprise in his quest to see space. One of the first space tourists, Charles Simonyi is said to have paid upwards of 50 million dollars to be among the first ten or so tourists in space. Simonyi, however, has the distinction of having been the only return customer, taking the space journey twice through an American space tourism company.
Famous for his development of ubiquitous software for Microsoft, including Word and Excel, Simonyi is a billionaire many times over, and can probably fly into space as much as he wants. But that doesn’t mean it was easy, or he was pampered. According to Forbes “Simonyi spent six months training alongside cosmonauts in Star City, near Moscow, where he exercised, learned about spaceflight and survival...He had to see nearly 100 doctors and pass dozens of medical tests.”
The two astronauts’ stories coincide in that both trips were on Russian Soyuz rockets. Also, much like Farkas, Simonyi had to study Russian in order to undertake his journey. Once on the space station, however, he was subject to the same zero-gravity effects that apply to space travelers of all nationalities, allowing him to float instead of walk. Forbes also reports that once in space, Simonyi played a round of ‘space golf’.
“It’s the speed that’s the most amazing. Every 90 minutes, you see spring, you see fall, you see the Arctic, you see the tropics, you see night, you see day,” Simonyi told Forbes. “I realized it was an extraordinary experience, and I just had to take it all in.”
Hungarian science can’t be accused of having its head in the clouds. That said, these two Hungarians who have traveled beyond our atmosphere are both dreamers and adventurers to be commended.
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