April 7, 2007
Billionaire Blasts Off on Russian Rocket
BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan -- A Russian rocket carrying the American billionaire who helped develop Microsoft Word blasted off late Saturday from the Baikonur cosmodrome en route to the international space station.
The Soyuz rocket, which also carried two cosmonauts, roared into overcast nighttime skies over the bleak Kazakh steppes, bathing the launch pad and dozens of officials and well-wishers a mile away in a glow of flame as it rose vertically then turned downrange.
Charles Simonyi, a 58-year-old Hungarian-born software programmer, paid more than $20 million for a 13-day trip to the orbiting station. He is the fifth paying space tourist to make the trip.
"I think for Charles it is a dream come true," said Victoria Scott, a friend of Simonyi's who watched the blastoff.
Martha Stewart, who has been linked romantically to Simonyi, spent the final hours before the launch taking a stroll aboard another mode of transport commonly seen around the gritty Baikonur space port in the barren steppes of Kazakhstan - a camel.
On Friday, Stewart shared a private moment with the billionaire - though only through a plate glass window, to protect him and his crewmates from germs.
"He's in excellent spirits," Stewart, 65, told The Associated Press. "He's very fit and very well-trained."
Earlier Saturday, as workers fueled the rocket on which the Soyuz TMA-10 capsule sits, Simonyi and cosmonauts Fyodor Yurchikhin and Oleg Kotov met with experts and engineers for pressure tests on their space suits and medical tests.
In a posting on the blog he intends to maintain while in orbit, Simonyi said he spent his final day getting a haircut and a therapeutic massage and watched a traditional showing of a classic Soviet-era war film. There was no mention of Stewart.
Stewart chose the menu for a gourmet meal that Simonyi will be taking to the station as a treat for his comrades in space. They plan a feast on Thursday, celebrated as Cosmonauts' Day in Russia after Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space on that day in 1961.
The menu includes quail roasted in Madiran wine, duck breast confit with capers, shredded chicken parmentier, apple fondant pieces, rice pudding with candied fruit, and semolina cake with dried apricots.
Simonyi began programming on a bulky Soviet computer called Ural-2 as a teenager in Hungary. After emigrating to the United States in 1968, he worked at Xerox Corp. (XRX) and later at Microsoft Corp. (MSFT), helping to develop Microsoft Word and Excel before eventually founding his own software company.
While at the space station, Simonyi will be conducting a number of experiments, including measuring radiation levels and studying biological organisms inside the lab.
Associated Press writer Jim Heintz contributed to this report from Mission Control in Korolyov, Russia.