BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan – With a thunderous roar and a trailing tail of fire, a Russian rocket blasted into orbit Thursday, carrying the world's second space tourist — a South African who paid $20 million to fulfill a childhood dream.
Mark Shuttleworth, a 28-year-old Internet millionaire, was strapped snugly into the Soyuz TM-34 capsule as he, an Italian space rookie and a veteran Russian cosmonaut were fired spaceward from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
The Russian craft soared into a clear blue sky, leaving behind the brown steppes of Central Asia and disappearing into space.
In just less than nine minutes, Russian flight controllers announced Shuttleworth and crew mates Roberto Vittori, an Italian pilot, and Yuri Gidzenko were safely in orbit and chasing the International Space Station for a Saturday morning docking.
South African's saw the launch live on TV, and Shuttleworth's family collapsed in a tearful hug near the launch pad as the first African reached space.
"It is the most amazing thing that you can ever witness," said Grant, Shuttleworth's brother, his eyes red with tears. "We are so proud of him."
Shuttleworth's $20 million space ticket is a small fraction of the more than $500 million he earned when he sold his Internet security company to U.S.-based competitor Verisign in a deal that stunned South African markets.
The 10-day mission, called "Marco Polo," will take the three crew members to the space station, where they will drop off the 7-ton Soyuz capsule they rode into orbit. One Russian spacecraft is always docked at the station as a lifeboat and is replaced twice a year to keep it fresh.
"Everything was fine. The crew is feeling fine," Vladimir Solovyov, chief of flights for the Russian segment of the international station, told reporters at Mission Control.
Before the launch, Shuttleworth and Vittori looked nervous as masked technicians checked their bulky white space suits in the cosmonaut's wardrobe room a short distance from the launch pad.
"Mark, there is no way you can turn back now," said Pyotr Klimuk, a former cosmonaut who oversaw the crew's final preparations.
Shuttleworth smiled and said in Russian, "I'm not nervous. I'm ready."
The crew rode a bus to the base of the 161-foot rocket, whose dark hull had turned white as liquid nitrogen used to burn the rocket fuel was pumped in. They climbed the small staircase that led to the elevator, turning around near the top to wave and blow kisses to the hundreds gathered to see them off.
Gidzenko put his hand on Vittori's shoulder and said, "Poshli," or "Let's go," and Shuttleworth gave a thumbs-up.
Shuttleworth, who says he started dreaming about space travel when he was 5 years old, trained for eight months with Gidzenko and Vittori at Russia's Star City, outside Moscow. He and his crew mates also spent a week at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Shuttleworth also received lessons from a South African scientist who needs his help to conduct experiments on how sheep and mice stem cells react in zero-gravity. Stem cells are the body's master repair cells, and they can develop into different cell and tissue types that researchers are working on to develop as treatments for various diseases.
"You shouldn't assume that a tourist is not prepared for space flight," Solovyov said.
He also welcomed the injection of new funds into the Russian space program. Shuttleworth's fee will be paid in installments that will be complete only after the team returns to Earth on May 5.
Struggling to keep alive their once world-leading space program, the Russians began exploring alternative sources of funding after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Besides offering seats to paying riders, the Russians have courted Western companies eager to tap into Russia's space program.
Shuttleworth was following in the footsteps of American businessman Dennis Tito, who became the first paying space tourist when the Russians sent him to the space station last year.
NASA strongly objected, saying Tito was not prepared and would be in the way. This time, the Russians worked more closely with the U.S. space agency, and NASA has raised no objections.