BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan – A Russian rocket roared into the night skies over Kazakhstan on Saturday, sending an American billionaire software designer and two cosmonauts soaring into orbit on a two-day journey to the international space station.
Climbing on a column of smoke and fire into the clouds over the bleak Kazakh steppes, the Soyuz TMA-10 capsule lifted off at 11:31 p.m. local time, bathing in an orange glow the Baikonur cosmodrome and dozens of officials and well-wishers watching some 1.2 miles from the launch pad.
The capsule then turned northeast and moved downrange, before entering orbit about 10 minutes later. It was scheduled to rendezvous with the station late Monday, Moscow time.
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Inside, U.S. billionaire Charles Simonyi and cosmonauts Fyodor Yurchikhin and Oleg Kotov grinned for the onboard camera, gave the thumbs-up sign and batted at a toy black cat hanging from rope — a token of good luck chosen by Kotov and named Dimla, after his two children.
Simonyi, a 58-year-old Hungarian-born software programmer who helped develop Microsoft Word, paid more than $20 million for the 13-day trip, the fifth such paying "space tourist" — or "space flight participant," as officials prefer to call them.
"It was the best thing I've seen in my life, and to be here with Charles means a lot to me," said Victoria Scott, a friend who watched the liftoff as others gasped and chanted "CHARLES! CHARLES!" and drank champagne toasts. "I think for Charles it is a dream come true."
"The power of the ignition of those engines and the feeling on the ground gave such a sense of what space flight is, and it fills you with awe," said Susan Hutchison, a spokeswoman for Simonyi.
Also among those bidding farewell was Simonyi's friend Martha Stewart, an American lifestyle maven who runs a home decorating and cooking business empire. She, however, watched the launch from a location separate from other spectators.
Stewart's presence in Baikonur inspired wide speculation that she and Simonyi — friends for decades — were planning to announce their engagement; some celebrity-gossip publications have suggested they were romantically linked.
After seeing Simonyi off for final preparations, Stewart spent the final hours before the launch aboard another mode of transport common to this part of Kazakhstan's steppes — a camel: "The ride was excellent," she said.
In a posting on the blog he intends to maintain while in orbit, Simonyi said he spent his final day getting a haircut and a therapeutic massage and watched a traditional showing of a classic Soviet-era war film.
There was no mention of Stewart on the blog, but Simonyi did make reference to one of the lesser-known, last-minute traditions for cosmonauts heading into space — urinating on the tire of the bus transporting them to the launch-pad.
Three days after arriving at the station and greeting its current occupants — Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin and American astronauts Miguel Lopez-Alegria and Sunita Williams — Simonyi will treat the crews to a gourmet meal, chosen by Stewart, in honor of Cosmonauts' Day, the Russian professional day commemorating Yuri Gagarin's epic 1961 flight into space.
The menu includes quail roasted in Madiran wine, duck breast confit with capers, shredded chicken parmentier, apple fondant pieces, rice pudding with candied fruit, and semolina cake with dried apricots.
Simonyi had said earlier he would bring with him the paper computer tapes that he used decades ago when he first learned programming on a bulky Soviet machine called Ural-2.
After emigrating to the United States in 1968, he eventually worked at Microsoft Corp., helping to develop Microsoft Word and Excel before eventually founding his own software company.
While at the space station, Simonyi will be conducting a number of experiments, including measuring radiation levels and studying biological organisms inside the lab.
He returns to Earth on April 20 along with Tyurin and Lopez-Alegria.