American billionaire blasts into history as double space tourist

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The Independent US

US billionaire Charles Simonyi roared into space aboard a Russian rocket yesterday – and went straight into the history books as the first tourist to undertake the epic journey twice.

The Soyuz TMA-14 spacecraft blasted into the leaden skies above the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and is due to dock with the International Space Station tomorrow.

"We are feeling well. Everything is going well," Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka said after take-off in a live feed, during which a fluffy white toy could be seen hanging above the crew in the cabin.

Mr Simonyi, 60, who made much of his fortune developing software at Microsoft, travelled into space in the cramped interior of the Soyuz rocket alongside Padalka and American astronaut Michael Barratt.

At an observation post near the launch pad, Mr 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 that 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.

Mr Simonyi, who paid a total of $60m 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," he told a pre-flight news briefing from behind a sealed glass partition.

The Hungarian-born adventurer is due to return to earth on 7 April. "He is in great spirits, he is very excited. He feels very privileged to be able to go into space again," said Eric Anderson, the head of Space Adventures.

Russia has borne the brunt of sending crews and cargo to the International Space Station since the US space shuttle Columbia disintegrated on re-entry in 2003, killing its crew of seven.

Space Adventures admitted its business had been affected by the global financial crisis. "The number of billionaires has been cut in half," Mr Anderson said. But he 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."