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Russian rocket lifts South African space tourist into orbit
( 2002-04-25 15:20 ) (7 )

The world's second space tourist lifted off Thursday on a Russian rocket from the Baikonur launchpad in Central Asia, heading for the International Space Station.

The Soyuz TM-34 rocketship blasted off at 10:27 Moscow time (0627 GMT) carrying Mark Shuttleworth, a 28-year-old South African Internet magnate, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gidzenko and Italian Air Force pilot Roberto Vittori on a 10-day mission.

Rousing applause filled mission control outside Moscow when officials announced that the rocket had reached orbit. The 49-meter (161-foot) Soyuz is expected to dock with the international station on Saturday at 11:57 a.m. Moscow time (0757 GMT).

Shuttleworth paid US$20 million for the journey, which began from the same cosmodrome in now-independent Kazakhstan where the Soviet Union inaugurated the space race, sending up the world's first satellite in 1957 and the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, four years later.

The money will be paid in installments that will be complete only after the team returns to Earth on May 5.

``Everything was fine. The crew is feeling fine,'' Vladimir Solovyov, chief of flights to the Russian segment of the international station, told reporters at mission control. He also welcomed the injection of new funds to the struggling Russian space program.

In South Africa, where Shuttleworth's mission has been receiving blanket media coverage, the launch was carried live by both of the country's public television stations, while a pay station has devoted an entire channel to coverage. A number of schools let pupils watch the launch live on television.

On Wednesday, former President Nelson Mandela expressed pride in Shuttleworth's achievements, and wished him luck.

Shuttleworth admitted to feeling a bit jittery about his voyage into orbit, a trip that he's been dreaming about since childhood.

This team's mission, named ``Marco Polo,'' is to drop off a fresh Soyuz rocketship to the space station. A Soyuz is kept docked as a lifeboat and replaced every six months to keep it fresh.

Shuttleworth is following in the footsteps of American businessman Dennis Tito, who became the first space tourist last year when he went to the international station on a Russian rocket. But Shuttleworth is determined that the world consider him more than just a passenger.

He has spent eight months in grueling training with the other cosmonauts, learned Russian so he can communicate with mission control outside Moscow and attended one week's worth of lessons at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Shuttleworth also received lessons from a South African scientist who needs his help to conduct experiments on how sheep and mice stem cells react in zero-gravity.

Stem cells are the body's master repair cells, and they can develop into a wide variety of different cell and tissue types that researchers are working to develop as treatments for various diseases.

``You shouldn't assume that a tourist is not prepared for space flight,'' Solovyov said.

Shuttleworth wore a patch Wednesday on his blue spacesuit bearing the red ribbon symbolizing the fight against AIDS, saying that he hoped some of the experiments will in ``some small way'' help in the battle.

Struggling to keep alive their once world-leading space program, the Russians began exploring alternative sources of funding after the breakup of the Soviet Union. In addition to offering seats to paying riders, the Russians have courted Western companies eager for a chance to work in the world's oldest space facility.

``The Russians were near starving. Five or 10 years ago it looked like they were all going to disappear, but now Western money has come in and things are looking brighter,'' said James Oberg, a US expert on the Russian space program.



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