Saturday, October 01, 2005

U.S. space tourist blasts off - Oct 1, 2005

BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan (AP) -- A Russian Soyuz rocket has lifted off from the Central Asian steppes, launching U.S. millionaire scientist Gregory Olsen and a new Russian-U.S. crew on a two-day journey to the international space station.

The rocket streaked off into the blue sky Saturday, trailing blindingly bright yellow and pink flames, at 7:55 a.m. Moscow time (0355 GMT) as the crew's family members and friends, as well as Russian and U.S. space officials, watched from a viewing platform at the Russian-leased Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. They remained largely quiet until only the contrail could be seen.

Olsen, the 60-year-old co-founder of a New Jersey-based infrared-camera company and holder of advanced degrees in physics and materials science, is paying a reported US$20 million (euro16.6 million) for participating in the Expedition 12 flight in a deal brokered by Virginia-based Space Adventures Ltd.

Russian cosmonaut Valery Tokarev and U.S. astronaut William McArthur were riding with him.

As the Russian-built Soyuz rocket was being fueled on the launching pad in Kazakhstan's barren steppes on Friday, top Russian and American officials held tough talks on the future of joint space missions with NASA's chief official warning that Moscow's demands for payment could end U.S participation.

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin told reporters that a 5-year-old U.S. law that bans space station-related payments to Russia because of Russian participation with Iran in building a nuclear power plant "could end a continuous American presence" on the international space station.

The cash-strapped Russian Federal Space Agency has turned to space tourism to generate money. But after transporting U.S. astronauts for free since the 2003 Columbia disaster grounded U.S shuttle flights, it is now threatening to start charging NASA by the end of the year.

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