March 26, 2009

Russian Capsule Launches Carrying Two-time Space Tourist

The Soyuz TMA-14 spacecraft carrying two astronauts and a space tourist lifted off from Russia's Baikonur cosmodrome on Thursday heading for the International Space Station.

NASA astronaut Michael Barratt and Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka are joined by Hungarian-born space tourist Charles Simonyi. The crew will become the 19th crew to live aboard the orbiting outpost.

The mission marks Simonyi's second venture into space, making him the world's first two-time space tourist.

Simonyi, who earned his wealth as the head of Microsoft's application software group, is expected to spend 11 days on his journey.

Those watching as the 60-year-old former software engineer lifted off aboard the craft in Kazakhstan included an emotional Simonyi's 28-year-old Swedish wife Lisa Persdotter, her family and Simonyi's friends, including Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who financially backed SpaceShipOne, which in 2004 became the first private, manned craft to reach space.

Persdotter wept as the craft lifted off, later admitting: "I'm very, very happy. It was very, very smooth, but I'm very emotional."

Simonyi told reporters earlier this month that he has promised his wife not to pursue another visit into space after the current venture.

Simonyi spent $25 million on his first space trip in April 2007, but since then the price has risen to $35 million.

"It's money that is spent on space exploration.... Russia is the only country in the world which offers those services," Simonyi told reporters at the Star City training center near Moscow earlier this month.

"I think space tourism is probably the only business model that is a viable business model for manned space flights, where you can actually make a profit."

Simonyi will return to Earth April 7 with Expedition 18 Commander Michael Fincke and Flight Engineer Yury Lonchakov, who have been on the station since October 2008, NASA said.

Cosmonaut Padalka and astronaut Barratt will be meeting with the other member of their crew, Koichi Wakata of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. Wakata, the first Japanese astronaut to live aboard the space station, arrived on March 17 along with NASA's space shuttle Discovery crew.

"We are feeling well. Everything is going well," Russian cosmonaut Padalka said in a live feed after take-off.

They are scheduled to dock with the station at 8:14 a.m. Saturday, March 28, according to NASA.


Image 1: Expedition 19 launches aboard a Soyuz rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. (NASA TV)

Image 2: Charles Simonyi. (NASA)


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