Space tourist tells of 'paradise'
ASTANA, Kazakhstan -- The capsule carrying the world's first paying space tourist has landed successfully on the steppes of Kazakhstan, ending American Dennis Tito's multimillion-dollar adventure.
Television pictures showed Tito smiling broadly as he greeted officials and medical staff immediately after the landing on Sunday.
"It was paradise, a great flight and great landing," Tito said moments after he emerged with Russian cosmonauts Talgat Musabayev and Yuri Baturin .
CNN correspondent Steven Harrigan reported from the landing site that the capsule looked severely charred.
Tito came out looking pale and sweaty but tremendously happy, "like someone who has just experience some tremendous challenge," Harrigan reported. "He has an enormous grin on his face."
The return trip by the 60-year-old multimillionaire who is said to have paid the Russian space agency $20 million was the final part of a fantastic space voyage.
But Tito returns to a growing row over whether tourists should be allowed to venture into space, with NASA and former astronaut John Glenn among the critics.
As Tito descended, recovery helicopters spotted the capsule hurtling toward Earth and saw the retro rockets fire above the steppe for a soft landing, Russian Mission Control said.
Just over three hours earlier, the Russian Soyuz capsule had undocked from the international space station and embarked on its lightning voyage back to Earth.
In a final video linkup from space, Tito said: "Personally, I've had the time of my life. I've achieved my dream and nothing could have been better. I thank everybody that supported my mission."
As they left the space station, Musabayev and American astronaut Jim Voss hugged, and Voss shook Tito's hand.
Tito and the cosmonauts then floated head-first into the Soyuz, their stockinged feet disappearing from view before the hatch connecting the capsule with the station was closed.
Inside the capsule, they switched on the power supply -- the capsule had been drawing power from the space station -- and powered up the capsule's navigation computer.
They donned bulky spacesuits for the flight back to Earth and ensured the Soyuz was airtight before undocking from the station.
A video attached to the capsule showed the space station quickly receding in the distance and the Earth coming into view.
The capsule orbited Earth once, then scuttled most of its weight including the habitation module, with toilet and kitchen, and the instrument module, with its batteries and solar wings.
That left only the 3.3-ton landing capsule.
In the last communications session with the crew, Mission Control in Korolyov, outside Moscow, asked Musabayev to give Tito two medicines and salt water to help him endure the stress of gravitational forces. He did not specify what the medicines were.
Flight commander Pyotr Klimuk told the crew that the weather was fine at the landing site about 400 kilometers (250 miles) southwest of the Kazak capital Astana, with scattered clouds, winds of three to seven meters (10 to 24 feet) per second and the temperature hovering around 20 Celsius (68 F).
After landing some 80 kilometres (50 miles) northeast of the tiny township of Arkalyk, the three men had preliminary medical tests in a mobile medical centre.
From there they were to be flown to Astana airport for the official welcome by Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
A brief news conference is scheduled for 1200 GMT. Tito, Musabayev and Baturin will then fly to Moscow.
Glenn, a former U.S. senator, took issue on Saturday with Tito's ride on a Russian spacecraft, calling it a misuse of the basic research mission of space exploration.
"I don't blame him wanting to go up," Glenn told CNN's "The Capital Gang." "And he's right. It's an incredible experience . . . But I just think it's a misuse of the spacecraft, and it was supposed to be for research."
Despite misgivings from NASA that Tito should have waited to take his joyride until more construction was completed on the multi-billion dollar complex, the trip ignited speculation that others among the jet-set would set their sights higher than the atmosphere.
Names that have surfaced include filmmaker James Cameron, an Oscar-winner looking for the perfect camera angle to capture planet Earth.
While praising Cameron for waiting for NASA's blessing to ride to the station, NASA chief Dan Goldin constantly took swipes at Tito before reporters and congress, referring to the gigantic ego and space unworthiness of the Wall Street investor.
"The current situation has put an incredible stress on the men and women of NASA," Goldin told a House subcommittee on Wednesday.
"Mr. Tito does not realize the effort of thousands of people, United States and Russia, who are working to protect his safety and the safety of everyone else."
Such protests hardly penetrated the thick hull of the floating complex, where Tito, a former NASA rocket scientist, enjoyed the congenial support of his Soyuz comrades, the courteous hospitality of two NASA astronauts living on Alpha and a warm embrace when he met the station's Russian commander.
Filled with the sounds of arias and overtures and the sights of passing continents and oceans, the serene world of citizen explorer Tito was interrupted only by an early bout of space nausea.
And the occasional press conference, when he dismissed Goldin's assertion that his presence threatened the safety of the space pros.
"I've been shelling out food and doing rather menial tasks to assist the crew and give them more time for their other work," Tito said.
Safety was the reason Tito could make the trip in the first place. He tagged along with the Russians, who delivered a fresh Soyuz escape capsule to Alpha last Monday.
A new Soyuz is needed every six months because toxic fuels aboard the Russian ships degrade and possibly corrode engine parts over time. The old vessel had about two weeks left on its 200-day warranty.
Perennial cash shortages, which prompted the Russians to start their space tourism business, have dogged Moscow's space program since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Washington is footing the lion's share of the cost of the project, but Moscow, which has unrivalled experience of long-term space flight, has designed and built many key parts.
Space tourist earns his keep
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