U.S. space tourist, crew return to Earth

ALMATY (Reuters) - A Russian Soyuz space capsule carrying U.S. billionaire Charles Simonyi and a Russian-American crew touched down safely in Kazakhstan on Wednesday.

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Charred black from its re-entry into atmosphere, the capsule -- also carrying U.S. astronaut Michael Fincke and Russian flight engineer Yuri Lonchakov -- landed north-east of the Kazakh industrial city of Dzhezkazgan as planned at 3:16 a.m. EDT.

Wrapped in blankets to protect against the wind and squinting in the sun, the trio smiled as rescue workers opened the space ship and helped them out of the TMA-13 craft onto the barren steppe of central Kazakhstan.

“Really nice to see you! Hello, Earth!” a smiling Fincke said as support teams checked his pulse and gave him a big green apple -- a Russian tradition for returning space crews.

The men were carried in special reclining chairs for a scheduled check-up as they acclimatized to Earth’s gravity.

Russian space officials said the touchdown was flawless.

“All the systems worked excellently. We are extremely happy about it,” Anatoly Perminov, head of Russian space agency Roskosmos, told reporters. “You can see for yourself from how they look that all of them are feeling excellent.”

The original landing site, in northern Kazakhstan, had been changed and the landing delayed by a day after officials said the area was too swampy and hard for rescue teams to reach.

“Welcome back to earth!” a NASA official told the crew via a live communication link broadcast on NASA television. About 200 rescue workers and doctors helped assist the crew back on Earth.

Hungarian-born Simonyi, 60, spent about two weeks in space conducting experiments, making history as the first tourist to visit the International Space Station twice.

He paid a total of $60 million for his two space trips.

Space Adventures, a U.S. firm arranging tourist flights, said this month it was open for more business despite the economic crisis and a lack of confirmed flight opportunities.

However officials say Simonyi could be the last space tourist for the foreseeable future, as all Soyuz seats have now been booked for professional crews representing the 16 countries working on the $100 billion orbital outpost.

Beginning next month, the station’s resident crew is due to double from three to six, all of whom will fly on Soyuz capsules. NASA and its partners will be solely dependent on Russia for crew transport due to the expected retirement of the U.S. space agency’s shuttle fleet.

Perminov said Roskosmos would decide on the details of future flights after NASA clarifies the retirement schedule.

“Presently we have to choose whether we will send a professional cosmonaut or continue to work with Space Adventures on sending ... a space tourist,” he said. “I think NASA will make a clear decision on this in the near future.”

Writing by Maria Golovnina, additional reporting by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Katie Nguyen