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US software tycoon makes space history

Baikonur — US software pioneer Charles Simonyi on Thursday became the first person to travel twice to space as a tourist, as he blasted off to the International Space Station (ISS).

Simonyi, 60, along with an American and a Russian astronaut, was launched aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket at 11:49 GMT from the Baikonur cosmodrome on the Kazakh steppe, in what could be the last space tourist trip for some time.

"I feel great and I am looking at the Earth," he told mission control in Russian after lift-off, as his wife, Swedish millionaire’s daughter Lisa Persdotter, tearfully joined the cheers on the ground.

Simonyi, one of the brains behind Bill Gates’ Microsoft, paid 35 million dollars (28 million euros) for the voyage, despite no longer being counted a billionaire in a ranking by the US magazine Forbes.

He previously travelled to the space station in April 2007, becoming one of a select group of wealthy civilians, most of them from the United States, to have pioneered space tourism.

The launch comes as Moscow is doubling the number of manned space launches to meet the needs of the expanding space station, with a second launch due in May.

The head of Russian space agency Rosksomos, Anatoly Perminov, said that for a period it could be the last time a space tourist would be taken on board due to increased demand on the programme, but had high praise for Russian-US space cooperation.

Thursday’s launch went smoothly and the flare from the spacecraft’s rockets could be seen gradually disappearing into the sky before it reached low-Earth orbit a few minutes after lift-off.

The professional spacemen on the flight are Russian Gennady Padalka, who is to become the space station’s commander, and American Michael Barratt, who takes over as flight engineer.

Perminov hailed what he described as a new era in US-Russian space cooperation, echoing the upbeat tone of the countries’ leaders following the inauguration of President Barack Obama.

He confirmed that Russia plans to double the number of manned launches to the space station this year to four to support an expansion of the station’s science programme.

"Almost as soon as the Cold War finished it was decided by our countries’ political leaderships to carry out great projects together,” said Perminov. “Now a new era is starting in our cooperation. In space cooperation between our countries there will be even more great projects, maybe future flights to asteroids, to other planets, to Mars. Everything is possible. It all depends on the political will of our countries’ leaderships."

He noted that two new space laboratories are to begin work at the space station, which orbits at about 350 kilometres (220 miles) above the Earth.

One is Japan’s Kibo module, planned for astronomical experiments, and the other is the European Space Agency’s Columbus module.

Amelie Herenstein/AFP/Expatica