BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan – A Russian capsule blasted off with a deafening roar on Thursday to carry U.S. billionaire Charles Simonyi into space for his second cosmic cruise.
Ice shards broke away as the Soyuz rocket with a Russian-American crew lifted off from the Baikonur cosmodrome facility into overcast skies over northern Kazakhstan's barren steppe.
Simonyi, a 60-year-old software designer who paid $35 million for his second trip on the Soyuz, showed the thumbs-up sign to capsule TV cameras as his 28-year-old wife, Swedish socialite Lisa Persdotter, cried with worry on her mother's shoulder.
"I'm very, very happy. (The launch) was very, very smooth," Persdotter said as the rocket, a bright dot in the sky, gradually faded from view. "But I'm very emotional."
Among the scores of officials, relatives and reporters at the viewing gantry roughly a mile from the launch pad were Simonyi's former colleague and co-founder of Microsoft, Paul Allen.
Allen, who used his Microsoft fortunes to bankroll SpaceShipOne — the first private, manned craft to reach space in 2004 — said he planned to follow in Simonyi's footsteps, though he wasn't sure when.
"It's a few years off. This is serious stuff — going into orbit.... I really wish Charles well. I missed Charles' first launch but I'm so glad to be hear for the second," he said.
Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka and American astronaut Michael Barratt joined Simonyi in the cramped vehicle, where they will sit for nearly two days before docking Saturday with the international space station, orbiting some 220 miles (350 kilometers) above the Earth.
Russian television showed footage of the crew and its mascot minutes before liftoff. A white plastic figurine of a snowman was seen hanging in front of Padalka's face.
"My daughter gave it to me, it's still winter in Russia," he said calling the toy "a weightlessness indicator."
Champagne was opened when mission control confirmed the flight had entered orbit.
Barratt's wife, Michelle, watched smiling as the rocket rose into the clouds. "We feel great, it was a great launch!" she shouted.
British-born space traveler Richard Garriott, who also traveled from Baikonur, in October 2008, praised the reliability of the Russian space program.
"It's so amazing about how they do this over here. On time, every time, perfectly," he said.
While Barratt and Padalka will join the current station's permanent crew, Simonyi will return to Earth 13 days later — a trip that will make him the first two-time space tourist and, for the foreseeable future, the last.
The space station's permanent crew is expanding from three to six, leading Russian officials to rule out space tourism from Baikonur for now.
Simonyi has offered to be more productive this time around, saying he will conduct medical and radiation experiments and chat with schoolchildren via ham radio and with his family via video stream.
After he returned from his $25 million, two-week space station trip in April 2007, Simonyi said Russian cosmonauts told him how different and rewarding it was to go back up a second time.