American computer game designer Richard Garriott reached space Sunday aboard a Russian rocket, fulfilling a long-deferred childhood dream as his astronaut father watched with pride.
The Soyuz TMA-13 spacecraft carrying Garriott and two crewmates hurtled into a clear blue sky from the Baikonur facility on the Kazakh steppe as family, friends and colleagues cheered. Garriott, a 47-year-old multimillionaire from Austin, Texas, is the sixth paying space traveler and the first American to follow a parent into orbit.
"This is so cool, this is so cool," said Garriott's girlfriend, Kelly Miller, watching the Soyuz soar away.
As the bright orange glow of the rocket disappeared in the distance, Garriott's 77-year old father serenely studied the sky with binoculars, urging caution before receiving confirmation the spacecraft had reached orbit safely.
"I'm elated, elated," Owen Garriott said when that confirmation came over a loudspeaker, about 10 minutes after the rocket lifted off on schedule at 1:01 p.m. (0701 GMT). He smiled and embraced Richard's older brother, Robert.
Miller and Garriott's mother, Eve, shed tears of joy and relief at the successful launch.
"I'm really happy for him. It's one of the things he's wanted to do most in his life," Miller said.
"He's like a kid in a candy shop," she said. "And I already want him to come back."
The most recent paying traveler, billionaire American software engineer Charles Simonyi, also watched the launch, and drank champagne with Garriott's family after the craft reached orbit.
Garriott's crewmates on the landmark 100th manned Soyuz flight are seasoned U.S. astronaut Mike Fincke, who spent six months on the international space station in 2004, and Russian Yuri Lonchakov.
Before the launch, the trio emerged triumphantly from a final checkup on their spacesuits to a crowd of hundreds of well-wishers bused in from the nearby city of Baikonur.
As they were driven away to the launch pad, Fincke gestured to his wife and children and mouthed the words "I'll call."
The Soyuz is due to dock Tuesday with the international space station, where British-born Garriott will spend about 10 days conducting experiments — including some whose sponsors helped fund his trip — and photographing Earth to measure changes since his father snapped pictures from the U.S. station Skylab in 1973.
He said before Sunday's launch that he managed to recoup a significant slice of his trip's price — a reported US$30 billion — through some of his experiments and that he hoped his trip would provide a viable model for financing private space travel in coming years.
"What I am trying to do is demonstrate that you can mount a very successful campaign to go into space and beyond because it's good business," Garriott told The Associated Press.
One of his most eye-catching initiatives on the mission has been to take up the digitized DNA sequences of some of the world greatest minds and musicians — as well as athletes, video game players and others — to the space station.
The eclectic list ranges from famed physicist Stephen Hawking to comedian Stephen Colbert and Matt Morgan, best known as the "Beast" from the U.S. television show "American Gladiators."
The digitized DNA is part of "the immortality drive," a kind of time capsule that will also include a list of humanity's greatest achievements and personal messages from Earthlings. The program will be stored on the space station in case calamity were to one day wipe out Earth.
Fincke and Lonchakov, who will remain on the space station for months, told a pre-launch news conference Saturday that that their main task will be to expand the space station's capacity to host up to six astronauts, instead of three, by adding sleep spaces, a toilet and more oxygen generation.
Also watching the launch was Yi So-yeon, 30, a bioengineer who became South Korea's first astronaut when she traveled to the space station last spring.
Yi and two crewmates had a rough ride back to Earth when their capsule failed to separate on time, sending it into a steep trajectory and subjecting them to powerful gravitational forces in a so-called "ballistic" descent — the second in succession and the third since 2003.
The chief of Russia's space agency Roscosmos, Anatoly Perminov, pledged Saturday that a ballistic landing would not be repeated, and Yi played down any concerns.
"We already had a lot of training for ballistic re-entry, so it's not a big deal," she said, adding that she felt "lucky" to be one of the few people who have had the experience.
"I guess if he also has a ballistic landing, he will feel lucky because he will also be a member of the ballistic landing club," she said.
Garriott, who made his fortune designing computer fantasy games, dreamed of space as a child and was shattered to learn that he could never become a NASA astronaut — like his father and many of their neighbors — because of his poor eyesight.
He is an investor and board member of Space Adventures Ltd., a U.S.-based company that has organized trips aboard Russian craft to the space station for five other millionaires since 2001.
While Garriott is the first American to follow his father's footsteps into space, Sergei Volkov did the same when he launched to the international space station earlier this year. Volkov is due to return to earth with Garriot and fellow cosmonaut Oleg Kononerko on Oct. 24.