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Smooth blastoff for space tourist

A SOYUZ capsule carrying a Russian-American crew and American billionaire space tourist Charles Simonyi blasted off for the international space station yesterday.

The Russian rocket lifted off on schedule from the Baikonur cosmodrome facility in a roar of fire and soared into the cold, overcast skies over northern Kazakhstan's barren steppes.

Simonyi, a software designer paying US$35 million for his second trip into space, joined Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka and American astronaut Michael Barratt in the cramped capsule.

The three will sit for nearly two days before hooking up with the station, orbiting some 350 kilometers above the Earth.

Minutes after blastoff, TV cameras from inside the Soyuz showed Padalka and Barratt waving for the camera and giving the thumbs-up OK sign.

Standing at viewing stands only a few hundred meters away from the launchpad, scores of officials, reporters and relatives watched the launch, including Simonyi's 28-year-old Swedish socialite wife Lisa Persdotter, who wept and clutched the coat of a relative.

"I'm very, very happy. It was very, very smooth," she said afterward.

Also watching was Paul Allen, a co-founder of software giant Microsoft Co, where Simonyi worked for many years.

"It's fantastic to see a launch, but when it's one of your friends, it's just something so special," he said.

Asked if he would be interested in going to space sometime, Allen said he would consider it; not on the Russian capsules or NASA shuttles, but on one of his own crafts.

In 2004, Allen used his Microsoft fortunes to bankroll SpaceShipOne, which in 2004 became the first private, manned craft to reach space.

Barratt and Padalka will join the current station's permanent crew, but Simonyi will return to Earth 13 days later - making him the first two-time space tourist and, for the foreseeable future, the last.


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