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Two-time space tourist returns to Earth

by Staff Writers
Moscow (AFP) April 8, 2009
US millionaire space tourist Charles Simonyi shared a kiss with his wife in the Kazakh steppe after returning safely to Earth on Wednesday after an unprecedented second tour in orbit.

Simonyi, who made his fortune pioneering Microsoft software, bumped back to Earth at 0715 GMT with two professional astronauts in the Russian Soyuz capsule, a spokesman for the mission control centre told AFP.

"According to the search group, the space capsule landed in the planned area. All of the cosmonauts are feeling normal," a mission spokesman said in comments on Russia's Vesti 24 television.

Travelling back to Earth with 60-year-old Simonyi -- the first person to travel into space twice as a tourist -- were Russian cosmonaut Yuri Lonchakov and US astronaut Michael Fincke.

"Here's the Earth!" Fincke cried repeatedly in Russian as the ground recovery team arrived, adding to NASA colleagues on the ground in English: "It's so nice to see you."

Still in space suits and wrapped in blue thermal blankets, the crew were shown on live national television smiling and undergoing initial medical examinations from deck chairs set out in the field by the landing site.

Hungarian-born Simonyi, who paid 35 million dollars (28 million euros) for his 10-day space tour, was seen receiving a warm embrace from his 29-year-old Swedish wife, Lisa Persdotter, who travelled by helicopter to the site.

His return to Earth from the International Space Station had been pushed back by a day after the initial landing site was found to be unsuitable, reportedly due to boggy ground.

But the crew was spared the hours-long wait that other Soyuz missions have undergone after those landings went off course and recovery teams scrambled to reach them in the vast Central Asian steppe near Baikonour Cosmodrome.

Search groups "were able to discover the craft while it was still at a height of 1,000 meters" (3,280 feet), cheered Alexander Verednikov, deputy head of the Russian space agency Roskosmos.

Roskosmos head Anatoly Perminov dubbed the 18th ISS mission "very productive, energetic."

"This is what sustained the good health of the crew during the flight... The mission fulfilled all its assignments and carried out many important scientific experiments," he added at a joint press conference with NASA officials.

"I want to congratulate the entire team. I think we learned today how to keep our astronauts healthy and looking good on Earth," a NASA official responded.

Perminov confirmed, however, that Simonyi was likely the agency's last space tourist for some time.

Asked if Russia intended to stop accommodating space tourists, he replied: "Yes, unfortunately." Any future resumption of the programme would depend on requirements for servicing the ISS.

Space on Soyuz launches is set to become tight when the number of crew routinely aboard the ISS doubles from three to six next month and after the United States suspends its own missions to the station from 2010.

Russia's space tourism partnership with US company Space Adventures, which also organised Simonyi's debut trio in April 2007, has provided a welcome boost to funding for its space programme since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

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Google Co-Founder May Become Space Tourist
Moscow (RIA Novosti) Apr 07, 2009
Russian-born American billionaire and Google co-founder Sergey Brin may become a space tourist in 2012, the president of Space Adventures announced at a press conference.

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