BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan – A Soyuz (search) rocket carrying U.S millionaire scientist Gregory Olsen (search) and a Russian-American crew lifted off Saturday from the Central Asian steppe, launching the world's third space tourist on a two-day journey to the international space station.
The rocket streaked into the blue sky with an earsplitting blast, trailing blindingly bright yellow and pink flames, as the crew's family and friends, as well as U.S. and Russian space officials, watched from a viewing platform at the Russian-leased Baikonur Cosmodrome (search) in Kazakhstan (search).
Some in the crowd of more than 100 people gasped at the blast-off and then again at the explosive separation of the first booster segment — the only audible reaction until the spacecraft entered its initial designated orbit nine minutes after the launch. Then the crowd burst into applause. The crew reported that all was well aboard the craft.
Olsen, the 60-year-old founder of an infrared-camera maker based in Princeton, N.J., reportedly paid $20 million for a seat on the Expedition 12 flight (search).
His daughter, Krista Dibsie, 31, accompanied by her husband and 4-year-old son, Justin, videotaped the liftoff. Justin held his hands over his ears, his mouth wide open.
As Dibsie craned her head skyward, tears rolled down her cheeks, and she said quietly: "There goes Dad. Love you, Dad."
"Now I'm nervous for him," she said. "I wasn't before but now he's up there and gosh, he's out of this world. I can't believe it."
Olsen, who holds advanced degrees in physics and materials science, defended his presence in the capsule as a necessary step in the evolution of space travel.
"I would hope that my flight would help, if just to make space flight more routine," Olsen said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press on the eve of the flight.
In the hours leading up the launch, the trio, outfitted in bulky space suits, had tested systems in the capsule. Shortly beforehand, they lowered the clear plastic covers on their helmets and activated the spacesuits' oxygen supply.
Russian cosmonaut Valery Tokarev and U.S. astronaut William McArthur were riding with him.
With the Russian-built Soyuz rocket being fueled on the launch pad Friday in Kazakhstan's barren steppes, Russian and American officials held tough talks on the future of joint space missions, with NASA's chief warning that Moscow's demands for payment could end U.S participation.
NASA Administrator Michael Griffin (search) said a 2000 U.S. law banning space station-related payments to Russia because Moscow helped Iran build a nuclear plant "could end a continuous American presence" on the station.
The cash-strapped Russian Federal Space Agency (search) has turned to space tourism to generate money. Olsen is the third non-astronaut to visit the station: California businessman Dennis Tito (search) paid about $20 million for a weeklong trip to the space station in 2001, and South African Mark Shuttleworth (search) followed a year later.
Olsen made his fortune on optic inventions. He is the co-founder of Sensors Unlimited Inc., a company that makes infrared imaging cameras and fiber-optic communications components.
At a preflight news conference with cosmonaut Valery Tokarev and astronaut William McArthur, Olsen said he preferred the term "space flight participant" to "space tourist."
"'Tourism' implies that anyone can just write a check and go up there. That's not what happened," he told the AP.
Olsen's flight was pushed back after Russian doctors found an unspecified medical ailment that since has been cleared up. He was cleared for flight in May.
Asked by a reporter how his health was, Olsen replied, "This has been two years of very hard work. In 20 hours, I will feel very, very good.
"All I have to do is to talk to my 4-year-old grandson, Justin," he said. "That's all the mental preparation I need."
McArthur, a retired Army colonel, has made three space shuttle flights, including one to the Russian space station Mir. He said he had no doubts about the safety of the Soyuz TMA-7 capsule.
"The record of the Soyuz indicates that it is a reliable vehicle. We have tremendous faith and confidence in the people who built and assembled our rocket," he said.
After blasting off, the space craft will rendezvous in two days with the station floating 250 miles above the Earth. Olsen, Tokarev and McArthur will bring cargo aboard and perform experiments.
The station's current inhabitants, Russian Sergei Krikalev and American John Phillips, arrived in April and are scheduled to return with Olsen on Oct. 11, touching down in Kazakhstan.
Against the backdrop of the latest Soyuz launch, NASA's Griffin met with his Russian counterpart, Anatoly Perminov, for talks on the future of joint space missions.
Since the 2003 Columbia disaster grounded the U.S. shuttle fleet, Russia's Soyuz and Progress spacecraft have been the workhorses of the joint space projects, shuttling crews and cargo to the space station. Discovery visited the station in July, but problems with the foam insulation on its external fuel tank have cast doubt on when the shuttle will fly again.
Russia has made it clear that it expects the United States to make payment or some sort of capital investment in exchange for future U.S. participation on Russian flights.
However, the Iran Nonproliferation Act of 2000 penalizes countries that sell unconventional weapons and missile technology to Iran. Russia is building an $800 million nuclear power plant in Iran despite U.S objections that this could help Tehran build atomic bombs.
The U.S. Senate agreed unanimously last week to amend the law, lifting the ban on NASA purchases of Soyuz seats until 2012. The House has yet to act on the measure.
"We at NASA are seeking relief from the (law), which after April next year would preclude cooperation with Russia in relation to certain aspects" of the space station, Griffin said.
"At issue is whether there will be future U.S. crew members and future U.S. crew missions if the congressional provisions are not granted."
NASA officials said Thursday in Houston they expect McArthur to return to Earth aboard a Soyuz in the spring, one way or another. A space shuttle was supposed to bring him home, but NASA's fleet is grounded indefinitely.