U.S. billionaire roars into space history
Thursday, Mar 26, 2009 1:0PM UTC
By Shavkat Rakhmatullayev and Shamil Zhumatov
BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan (Reuters) - U.S. billionaire Charles Simonyi roared into space aboard a Russian rocket on Thursday, making history as the first tourist to make the epic journey twice.
The Soyuz TMA-14 spacecraft blasted into the leaden skies from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on schedule at 1149 GMT and is due to dock with the International Space Station (ISS) two days later.
"We are feeling well. Everything is going well," Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka said in a live feed after take-off, a fluffy white toy hanging above the crew in the cabin.
Hungarian-born Simonyi, 60, who made much of his fortune developing software at Microsoft, traveled into space in the cramped interior of the Soyuz rocket alongside Padalka and U.S. astronaut Michael Barratt.
At an observation post near the launch pad, Simonyi's 28-year-old Swedish wife Lisa Persdotter burst into tears and hugged her relatives as the rocket flashed through the sky and gradually disappeared from view.
His friends, including Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, opened bottles of champagne and cheered as loudspeakers at Baikonur announced the blast-off had been successful.
A spokesman for Russian mission control said the rocket had safely reached its targeted orbit. "They are now in orbit. Everything is going well," the spokesman said.
Simonyi, who paid a total of $60 million for his two space trips, has said he will hang up his space suit for good after this last trek.
"I cannot fly for the third time because I have just married and I have to spend time with my family," Simonyi told a pre-flight news briefing from behind a sealed glass partition.
He is set to return to earth on April 7 with Michael Fincke, U.S. commander of outgoing Expedition 18, and Russian flight engineer Yuri Lonchakov.
"He is in great spirits, he is very excited. He feels very privileged to be able to go into space again," said Eric Anderson, head of Space Adventures which arranges space trips.
Russia has borne the brunt of sending crews and cargo to the multinational ISS since the U.S. Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated on re-entry in 2003, killing its crew of seven.
A source in Russia's space industry told Reuters two space tourists could be launched in 2011. He gave no further details.
Space Adventures admitted its business had been affected by the global financial crisis. "The number of billionaires has been cut in half," Anderson told Reuters, but added that demand for space trips appeared to be stable for now.
"It's a very long-term thing," he said. "You don't just wake up in the morning one day and decide to go into space."
(Additional reporting by Dmitry Solovyov and Guy Faulconbridge in Moscow, writing by Maria Golovnina; editing by Tim Pearce)