American space tourist back on Earth after voyage in ‘paradise’
STAR CITY, Russia (AP) – Dennis Tito ended the world’s first paid space vacation Sunday with a fast and fiery descent to Earth and an ecstatic assessment of his multimillion-dollar adventure.
The Russian capsule landed successfully in Central Asia, delivering the 60-year-old California tycoon and his two Russian crewmates to Earth after eight days in space and a stint on the international space station.
”It was perfect. It was paradise,” Tito said, still strapped into his seat after it removed from the Soyuz capsule, following touchdown in the vast steppes of Kazakstan. The air still reeked of charred metal from the fierce friction the capsule endured on its three-hour descent.
The capsule – with its crew safely insulated inside – was briefly engulfed in flames before its parachute opened to slow its return to Earth. It landed in a bleak plain in northern Kazakstan and was dragged for a few yards through the dirt before coming to a rest.
Tito’s elation continued even as a plane carried him and cosmonauts Yuri Baturin and Talgat Musabayev back to Moscow. ”One happy guy, one happy man, very happy,” was how he described himself.
After landing at the Chkalovsky military airport outside Moscow, they were whisked aboard a bus and taken to the facility where they trained for the voyage in nearby Star City. Greeted by a military band and a throng of clamoring reporters as they got off the bus, Tito made no remarks and appeared tired.
Tito and the cosmonauts blasted off from Kazakstan on April 28 and spent two days in orbit before docking with the space station, where Tito’s presence distressed NASA.
The U.S. space agency complained that the station was no place for an amateur, even though Tito underwent extensive training as part of the trip that reportedly cost him up to $20 million.
Even after NASA dropped its objections, agency head Daniel Goldin complained, saying last week that Tito’s presence had put the space station under substantial stress.
Tito said the U.S. astronauts went out of their way to show him around. But before the return to Earth on Sunday, American astronaut Jim Voss gave Tito only a reserved handshake in contrast to the hug he gave Musabayev, a video linkup with Russian mission control showed.
Tito and the cosmonauts then floated headfirst into the Soyuz space capsule, their stockinged feet disappearing from view before the hatch was closed.
The capsule touched down near Arkalyk, about 250 miles southwest of the Kazak capital Astana. Officials, reporters and a few curious onlookers crowded around the trio.
The two cosmonauts walked to a nearby medical tent for a checkup, but Tito had trouble walking so two men carried him in his chair. Someone in the crowd handed him an apple, which he tossed into the air – as if testing gravity after days of weightlessness.
Only once he was on solid ground did he admit to worries about the trip.
”I was worried that I might not feel good in space,” Tito said. ”I turned out to feel the best I’ve felt in my entire life while I was in space.”
Still, he said, he did not want to make the trip again.
”I want other people to make it instead,” Tito said.
The crew flew to the airport in Astana for a welcome by Kazak President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who told Tito: ”In the past, it was only in science fiction novels that you could read about ordinary people being able to go to space. But you laid the foundation for space tourism.”
It is unclear how quickly that foundation may be built upon, given NASA’s objections and reservations expressed by some of the other countries participating in the station project.
Tito said the Americans should wake up to the potential of space vacations.
”They might not know it, but this is the best thing that’s happened for NASA,” he said.
Yuri Semyonov, the head of RKK Energiya – the firm that built the Russian modules used on the international space station – hailed the flight Sunday as an important precedent.
”We are satisfied with this flight and we see the beginning of commercial exploitation of the international station,” he said.
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After a period of dry, warm weather, winter returns this week to Lake Tahoe.