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Space billionaire returns to Earth

An American billionaire who paid $25 million for a 13-day trip to outer space returned to Earth on Saturday in a space capsule that also carried a cosmonaut and an American astronaut, a Russian space official said.
U.S. space tourist Charles Simonyi gestures shortly after landing in Kazakhstan. A Russian cosmonaut and an American astronaut returned to Earth on Saturday along with Simonyi, a billionaire whose paid voyage to the international space station ended with a landing on the Kazakh steppe.Sergei Ilnitsky / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

An American billionaire who paid $25 million for a 13-day trip to outer space returned to Earth on Saturday in a space capsule that also carried a cosmonaut and a U.S. astronaut, making a soft landing on the Kazakh steppe.

The capsule carrying Charles Simonyi, a Hungarian-born software engineer who helped develop Microsoft Word and Excel, touched down after a more than three-hour return trip from the orbital station, a spokesman said at Mission Control outside Moscow.

Simonyi looked ecstatic after rescuers removed him from the capsule, which lay askew on the bleak grassland. He smiled and grinned as he spoke with the support crew. He then bit enthusiastically into a green apple — a traditional offering for space crews touching down in Kazakhstan, which is famous for the fruit.

Also on the return journey were Mikhail Tyurin and Michael Lopez-Alegria, who spent seven months on the international space station.

Tyurin looked pale and tired, but managed a smile in a video link with Mission Control. Lopez-Alegria, the last out of the capsule, sighed with relief.

The capsule raced down to Earth after separating from the two other sections of the Soyuz TMA-9 craft following its departure from the station, where one of the final tasks the travelers performed was to move containers with biological experiments from refrigerators on the station into the Soyuz.

"I crossed my fingers all the way, and I am very happy now," Simonyi's brother Tamas said at Mission Control. "Yes, I was nervous, but now it's a big relief to know that he's safe and sound and that the crew is safe and sound."

Anatoly Grigoryev, head of the Russian biomedical institute responsible for cosmonauts' health, said it was understandable if Tyurin and Lopez-Alegria felt less chipper than Simonyi: "It is natural that those who spend a quite long period of time (in space) find it harder now."

Simonyi arrived at the station on April 9 — also courtesy of a Soyuz, which flew into space atop a Russian rocket launched from the Russian-leased launch facility in Baikonur, Kazakhstan — along with cosmonauts Fyodor Yurchikhin and Oleg Kotov, who remained on the station.

Wiping tears from her eyes with a tissue, Lopez-Alegria's wife, Daria, said she was not nervous "until the last minute."

"He missed him much more," she said, pointing to their 7-year old son Nicholas.

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Simonyi, 58, amassed the fortune that made his $25 million voyage possible through his work with computer software, including helping to develop Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel.

He is also associated with another major American household name: Martha Stewart.

Simonyi was seen off at Baikonur by Stewart, who is a friend, and who also watched the Soyuz dock from Russian Mission Control outside Moscow and spoke to him during a video linkup after he boarded the station. U.S.-based Space Adventures Ltd., which arranged Simonyi's trip, had said Stewart would not be at the site in Kazakhstan or at Mission Control for the landing.

The capsule was initially to return a day earlier, but spring floodwaters in the usual landing area forced space officials to postpone the arrival and use a reserve landing site.

Simonyi followed in the footsteps of Dennis Tito, Mark Shuttleworth, Gregory Olsen and Anousheh Ansari  — all "space flight participants" who have traveled to the international space station aboard Russian rockets in trips brokered by Space Adventures.

Briton Helen Sharman in 1991 took a trip to the Soviet station Mir that she won through a contest, and a Japanese journalist traveled to Mir in 1990 with a ticket that reportedly cost $12 million.