October 11, 2005

Space tourist returns to Earth

By Shamil Zhumatov

NEAR ARKALYK, Kazakhstan (Reuters) - A Russian cosmonaut, a U.S. astronaut and an overjoyed American space tourist returned safely to Earth on Tuesday when their Soyuz capsule bumped down in a near-perfect landing in Kazakhstan.

Footage beamed to Moscow mission control from the Kazakh steppe showed the recovery team opening the hatches of the spaceship and tugging the three men in their white spacesuits back onto firm land.

Millionaire scientist and entrepreneur Gregory Olsen waved and gave a big thumbs up -- while munching cheerfully on a piece of fruit.

"I feel great. I can't wait to walk around, have real food and take a shower," he said.

Russia's Sergei Krikalev and U.S. astronaut John Phillips had spent half a year in orbit on the International Space Station. Olsen was with them in space for just over a week, paying a reported $20 million for the trip.

Phillips looked dazed at first, his eyes barely open, surrounded by people mopping his forehead and glasses. But he too soon smiled and said: "I'm feeling better now."

Krikalev during this, his sixth spaceflight, set a cumulative record of 803 days for the most time spent off the planet by any astronaut or cosmonaut.

"Thank you very much to those who worked with us," he said when he settled into the Soyuz capsule earlier in the day, after handing command over to NASA astronaut William McArthur. "We're done with our tasks on the expedition."


Space officials from Russia and the United States said they were delighted with the smooth landing.

"As you can see the crew are healthy and cheerful. Gregory Olsen looks best of all," Russia's space agency chief, Anatoly Perminov, told reporters at mission control.

"It shows us how you need to fight for your dream. He fought and he won," said the head of the Russian space agency Roskosmos.

Olsen was the world's third space tourist, after U.S. businessman Dennis Tito in 2001 and South African Mark Shuttleworth in 2002.

Roskosmos also made it clear that although the U.S. shuttle fleet is out of action, McArthur can be sure of a ride home next year with his Russian colleague Valery Tokarev.

"There is a clear understanding how (McArthur) will come back. He will come back on a Soyuz," said Alexei Krasnov, head of Roskosmos manned space flight programs, adding that they had not yet hammered out the price of the ticket.

At the moment Russia bears the responsibility for ferrying people and supplies to the $100-billion station after NASA grounded its shuttle fleet in July, having failed to fix a technical problem that killed seven astronauts in 2003.

Roskosmos meets its obligations to fly NASA astronauts this year so the United States will need to pay cash.

The hitch is that trade sanctions linked to U.S. fears that Russian know-how could help Iran develop nuclear weapons mean NASA cannot pay Roskosmos, but U.S. lawmakers are working on easing the ban.