Mandela leads cheers as first 'Afronaut' blasts into space

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The Independent Online

A young South African millionaire blasted off on a tourist trip into space yesterday to tears from his mother and cheers from countrymen who hailed him as the first "Afronaut".

"I'm not nervous. I'm ready," Mark Shuttleworth, 28, told officials as he clambered into a space suit before the launch from Russia's Baikonur space base in Kazakhstan.

The Soyuz carrying Mr Shuttleworth to the International Space Station blasted off on schedule at 06.26 GMT. Also on board were the mission captain Yuri Gidzenko, 40, who has chalked up almost a year in space days, and a European Space Agency astronaut, Roberto Vittori, 37.

Mr Shuttleworth, an internet entrepreneur whose ticket is reported to have cost $20m (£14m), is the second amateur cosmonaut to pay his way into space. The American businessman Dennis Tito visited the space station a year ago.

Watching from the viewing platform as the Soyuz roared into a flawless blue sky were several members of Mr Shuttleworth's family, including his parents and two brothers.

His mother, Ronelle, lifted her spectacles to wipe away tears during the final countdown. Earlier she said: "I'm sure he's going to have a wonderful time. I'll worry a little bit but I'm sure it will be fine."

In South Africa, where Mr Shuttleworth had initially been criticised for spending a fortune on the jaunt, Nelson Mandela led the country in wishing him luck. "We are happy to have a South African who has taken this journey," the 83-year-old former president said.

The Soyuz capsule was scheduled to link up with the space station tomorrow. After eight days on thestation, the three will arrive back on Earth on 5 May.

Mr Shuttleworth, who spent eight months training at Star City outside Moscow, is considered by many experts as purely a tourist passenger, even though he will carry out scientific experiments, including HIV/Aids and genetics tests.

But the fees paid by Mr Tito and Mr Shuttleworth are vital to Russia's cash-starved space programme. The price of a single tourist seat almost covers the cost of a Soyuz launch.