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Space tourist returns to Earth

MISSION CONTROL MOSCOW (Reuters) - U.S. space tourist Charles Simonyi returned safely to Earth on Saturday, touching down with a Russian-U.S. crew in the steppe of Central Asia after paying for a two-week round trip into space.

Slideshow ( 2 images )

The Russian-made Soyuz capsule undocked from the International Space Station, re-entered Earth’s atmosphere and landed just over three hours later in Kazakhstan at 1231 GMT.

Controllers who supervised the landing from Mission Control outside Moscow clapped along with the space travelers’ relatives as they saw the announcement “It has landed!” appear in red capital letters on a giant screen.

Live television pictures from the landing site 133 km (81 miles) north-east of the Kazakh city of Jezkazgan showed recovery teams and doctors rushing to the capsule.

Ground crews first pulled out Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin who looked tired and kept his eyes closed. They then pulled out Simonyi who smiled while doctors wiped his face.

“I feel terrific, it was a fantastic trip, it is good to be back,” Simonyi said before biting into an apple as he sat in a special reclining chair.

The world’s fifth space tourist paid around $25 million for a fortnight in space and pre-flight training. He had been at the $100-billion space station, in orbit 350 km (217 miles) above Earth, since April 9.

Tyurin and the other crew member, NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria, had spent seven months in orbit.

Russian space chief Anatoly Perminov said the three cosmonauts were feeling well: “But Charles Simonyi clearly feels the best. He is giving interviews right, left and center.”

Hungarian-born Simonyi, 58, led the teams that developed Microsoft’s Word and Excel applications.

“The best proof you can have about your good health is when you are allowed to fly into space and you return with a smile,” Simonyi’s younger brother Tamas told Reuters.

The homecoming was originally scheduled for Friday but boggy ground meant the date and location had to be changed, effectively giving Simonyi a free extra day in space.

U.S. lifestyle star Martha Stewart, a close friend of Simonyi who had seen him off at the launch pad with an aluminum hamper full of gourmet food, was not present at the landing.

“We are excited to see him. It has been a long time,” said Lopez-Alegria’s wife Daria.

His 7-year-old son Nicolas added: “I hope he is OK.”

Remaining on the station are Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov and Fyodor Yurchikhin, who flew to the outpost with Simonyi, and U.S. astronaut Sunita Williams, who arrived at the station in December.

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