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2nd Tourist Blasts Off for Space Station

April 25, 2002|From Reuters

BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan — Three astronauts, including fee-paying South African Internet millionaire Mark Shuttleworth, blasted off today in a Russian rocket for an eight-day trip to the International Space Station.

Shuttleworth, 28, is the second amateur to pay his way into space after California businessman Dennis Tito visited the International Space Station a year ago. He is the first African citizen to go into space.

Crammed into the cockpit by his side were Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gidzenko and Roberto Vittori, an Italian.

The Soyuz rocket lifted off at 12:26 p.m. Kazakhstan time from Launch Pad One, the same site from which the world's first cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, blasted off 41 years ago. The crew was to spend eight days at the space station before landing back on the Kazakhstan steppe May 5.

After medical tests and technical preparations Wednesday, the astronauts watched the classic 1970s Soviet blockbuster "The Scorching Sun of the Desert," a decades-old tradition faithfully followed by every crew leaving the Baikonur cosmodrome, which Russia rents from Kazakhstan. The price of the trip has not been officially disclosed, but Russia media have reported that Shuttleworth paid up to $20 million for his seat on the Soyuz.

"We received our final ballistic and trajectory information, and we have been working closely with the doctors, who have been keeping a beady eye on us," Shuttleworth said Wednesday.

Shuttleworth is the second amateur space buff to buy a reported $20-million ticket to the ISS, but his eight-month training stint at Star City outside Moscow suffered little of the U.S.-Russian controversy that surrounded Tito's flight.

NASA feared that Tito might endanger himself and the ISS. Russia's space agency accused NASA of stalling preparations because it objected to cash-paying amateurs visiting the space outpost.

Vittori, 37, a European Space Agency astronaut who will serve as the crew's flight engineer, also will be on his maiden flight.

Gidzenko, 40, who will captain the flight, was one of the three-member crew that blazed the ISS trail in October 2000.

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