Russian spacecraft with US tourist makes safe comeback

U.S. millionaire Gregory Olsen and a two-man, Russian-American crew returned from the international space station to Earth early Tuesday in a swift, bone-jarring descent.

The touchdown of the Russian Soyuz space capsule on the cold, wind-swept steppes of northern Kazakhstan, where Russia's manned-space facilities are based, ended the third trip by a private citizen to the orbiting laboratory. The descent from the station orbiting approximately 250 miles above the Earth took about 3 1/2 hours.

Four search planes and 17 helicopters scrambled to meet the spacecraft, and search-and-rescue crew members helped the men out of the capsule, sat them in chairs and draped fur-lined sleeping bags over their shoulders to ward off the early dawn chill.

Rescuers reported that the crew's condition was "good," according to Russian Mission Control at Korolyov outside Moscow.

Olsen, 60, appeared unaffected by the gut-wrenching trip home. He grinned ebulliently, ate a green pear and drank water with gusto as he chatted with ground personnel. "I feel great," he said in both English and Russian.

"I want to have a good steak, a red wine and, of course, a hot shower," he told reporters after the crew was whisked by a helicopter to the nearby town of Kustanai from where they were flown to an air base just outside Moscow, reports the AP.

After landing, the crewmen were to spend two hours undergoing medical checks, then be shuttled by helicopter to a Kazakh staging point and ultimately back to Moscow for further examinations.

McArthur and Tokarev are to conduct two spacewalks during their time aboard the station, as well as an array of scientific experiments, medical tests and routine maintenance.

Olsen, who spent two years in training and paid US$20 million (euro16 million) for his trip, conducted experiments during his visit, including one to determine how microbes that have built up on the space station are affected by flight, particularly if their rate of mutation has been impacted.

In addition, he took videos and photos and "enjoyed being here, floating free in space," he told The Associated Press by e-mail last week.

A Russian Space Agency official said that Japanese businessman Daisuke Enomoto was in line to be the world's fourth space tourist, following Olsen, fellow American Dennis Tito and South African Mark Shuttleworth.

Alexei Krasnov, the head of manned programs, said in an interview posted on the agency's Web site that the Japanese could face a challenge by another American, whom he did not name.

"Whoever is better prepared will fly," he said, adding that the next space tourist probably would not travel to the station until autumn 2006, informs CNN.

Photo: the AP P.T.

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