ASTANA, Kazakstan – After a week of admiring the Earth as he floated weightlessly in the international space station, cosmos tourist Dennis Tito was to return on Sunday to the pull of gravity and the glare of celebrity.
A Soyuz space capsule carrying the world's first paying space tourist and two Russian cosmonauts was to touch down in the bleak steppes of Kazakstan and bring to an end a trip that thrilled millions vicariously but angered the United States.
After the touchdown, the 60-year-old American tycoon was to be taken to Kazakstan's capital Astana for a medical checkup and a welcoming ceremony, then fly to Moscow for another ceremony at Star City, the cosmonaut training facility where Tito underwent months of preparation.
Russian space officials said that training made him as competent as any professional space traveler, but the U.S. space agency NASA vigorously objected, contending that having a recreational traveler aboard the space station could impair work conducted on the 16-nation project.
Tito, a Santa Monica, Calif., financier, paid a reported $20 million for the trip, which originally was to be to the Russian space station Mir. But after Russia decided to plunge the Mir into the Pacific Ocean because it was deteriorating, the itinerary was switched to the space station.
NASA eventually dropped its complaints, but then asked Russia to postpone the launch because astronauts were experiencing computer problems affecting the space shuttle Endeavour, which was docked at the station.
Russia resisted the plea and Tito, along with cosmonauts Talgat Musabayev and Yuri Baturin, blasted off April 28 from Baikonur, the sprawling launch facility that the Russian space program leases from Kazakstan.
Tito, after experiencing a bout of space sickness en route to the space station, expressed nothing but delight with the trip and said that despite the controversies, American astronauts on the station "have gone out of their way to show me around."
"It goes well beyond anything that I have ever dreamed," Tito said a day after arriving at the space station. "Living in space is like having a different life, living in a different world."
But NASA head Daniel Goldin complained the next day that Tito's trip "put an incredible stress" on the American agency.
"Mr. Tito does not realize the effort of thousands of people, United States and Russia, who are working to protect his safety and the safety of everyone else," he said.
Tito said Friday that one of his first tasks back on Earth will be to try to persuade officials to drop their objections and make space jaunts available to everyone — at least those who can afford them.
There appear to be plenty of people who aren't scared off by the price tag. The U.S. company Space Adventures, which helped Tito broker his trip, says it has several serious customers prepared to pay tens of millions of dollars for similar journeys. It said about 100 more have made reservations for proposed suborbital flights — a relative bargain option at $98,000 per person.