Space tourist feels 'great' in orbit
BAIKONUR COSMODROME, Kazakhstan (CNN) -- An American tycoon has become the first space tourist after he blasted off for the international space station on a Russian rocket.
The Soyuz-TM capsule carrying Dennis Tito and two Russian cosmonauts separated from the booster nine minutes after launching from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 0737 GMT on Saturday, and entered into its orbit, Itar-Tass news agency reported.
NASA had strongly objected to the presence of Tito -- a Californian businessman and former NASA employee -- on the mission, but dropped its complaint earlier this week. It also emphasised his trip was a one-time exemption.
A television monitor inside the spaceship showed Tito grinning broadly. When a ground controller asked him how he felt, he replied in Russian "Khorosho," which means "great."
As the rocket blasted off, his son Mike told Reuters: "I am thrilled, I am ecstatic! He's really gone ahead and done it!"
In a pre-flight interview with CNN, Tito, 60, who was reported to have paid $20 million to go on this mission, said: "This is not a vacation, (it's) the fulfillment of a life's dream to fly into space.
"Only 400 people have flown in space, so that is for me a privilege to be able to actually observe the Earth from outer space, circle the Earth you know once every 90 minutes."
Until the eve of the launch, United States and Russian space officials argued about the overlap of the Soyuz rocket launch and the continued docking of U.S. space shuttle Endeavour at the space station.
Computer problems have kept the Endeavour at the station longer than expected as astronauts try to carry out operations of a critical robot arm.
The ISS has suffered a series of glitches since Tuesday that left ground controllers with only tentative command.
NASA said docking the Russian spacecraft next to the U.S. shuttle could be extremely delicate and potentially dangerous because the Soyuz would come very close to the shuttle's tail, according to shuttle flight director Phil Engelauf.
Russian space officials refused to delay Saturday's launch but agreed to put the Soyuz in a holding pattern if the shuttle was still at the space station on Monday.
Russia said it had been unwilling to postpone the Soyuz mission because the cosmonauts must replace the space station's escape craft, whose service lifetime expires at the end of the month.
The Soyuz space ship carrying Tito and the cosmonauts will serve as the new lifeboat and the three men will return on the older ship.
The dispute over the timing of the blastoff followed a long wrangle over whether a tourist should go to the space station at all.
Russian officials said Tito, who is divorced with three grown-up children, received the equivalent of a professional cosmonaut's training.
CNN Moscow Bureau Chief Jill Dougherty said Tito's training was rigorous and included a Siberian wilderness survival course, technical work and 900 hours of classroom training.
Endeavour originally was scheduled to land on Monday at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The shuttle now will land no earlier than Tuesday.
The Soyuz is expected to arrive at the ISS on Monday.
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