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Russian space capsule lands

A Russian spacecraft carrying a crew of three including US billionaire space tourist Charles Simonyi landed safely in Kazakhstan today, officials said.

The Soyuz capsule touched down around 11:15 am (0715 GMT, 3:15 am EDT) today, about three hours after leaving the international space station. It descended on parachutes and then hit the ground in a jarring puff of dust and dirt.

Russian and American space officials and relatives of the Soyuz's crew applauded as the landing was announced at Russian Mission Control in Korolyov, on Moscow's northern outskirts.

Within 20 minutes of the landing, Simonyi, Russian Yuri Lonchakov and American Michael Fincke were extracted from the capsule, still strapped into their seats, and taken outside under bright sunshine for initial medical examination. Video from the site showed the three smiling, giving thumbs-up to cameras and speaking on satellite phones before being carried to waiting helicopters.

"It looks like we know how now to take care of our astronauts and cosmonauts in orbit so that they look good on landing," NASA official Brian O'Connor told reporters at a post-landing news conference.

Simonyi's wife of four months Lisa Persdotter met him at the landing, giving him a long kiss and bouncing on her toes in excitement.

Simonyi is a former Microsoft executive who became the world's first repeat space tourist when he arrived on the space station on March 28.

Simonyi may be the last private traveler the Russians allow to journey to the space station, as the station's permanent crew doubles to six in coming months.

Kazakhstan had planned on sending up its first astronaut later this year, but Anatoly Perminov, chief of Russian space agency Roscosmos, noted that Kazakh officials had decided to cancel the plans. He told reporters that either a regular astronaut or possibly another paying tourist could next travel aboard a Russian craft.

Russia's Soyuz and Progress spacecraft have long been the workhorses of the international efforts to build the space station. The craft will take on even greater importance after 2010 when NASA is expected to retire the space shuttles.

On Tuesday, the Russian space agency Roscosmos awarded an 800-million ruble (US$23 million) contract to design a next-generation spaceship to replace the 40-year-old Soyuz, setting the ground for a potential new space race with the United States.


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