Billionaire Lifts Off on Second Space Trip
Expedition 19 launches toward the ISS aboard a Soyuz rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on March 26, 2009.
Credit: NASA TV

This article was updated at 8:28 a.m. ET.

An American billionaire and two professional astronauts launched into space early Thursday on a Russian rocket headed to the International Space Station.

Space tourist Charles Simonyi, Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka, and NASA astronaut Michael Barratt lifted off aboard a Soyuz TMA-14 spacecraft at 7:49 a.m. ET (1149 GMT) from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The cloudy, rainy skies of the launch site did not hinder the flight.

The successful launch makes Simonyi the first civilian ever to fly in space twice. For $35 million, paid to the Russian Federal Space Agency through the U.S. firm Space Adventures, he is on a 13-day trip to the space station and a round-trip ride on Russia's tried and true spacecraft.

"I'm doing well," Simonyi said as the rocket hurtled upward.

The craft reached orbit about nine minutes after launching. "Gravity and G-loads are gone, we're in space!" said Padalka, who commanded the Soyuz flight.

Mission Control bid the spaceflyers farewell and reminded them not to forget to call back during their six-month mission. "We'll be in touch," Padalka assured them.

Space station commander Michael Fincke, currently onboard the orbiting laboratory, radioed congratulations to the newly-launched crew. "We're looking very forward to welcoming them aboard in just a few days," he said. "It's going to be great to have them on board. Congratulations on another picture perfect launch."

Space touring

Simonyi made a similar trip in 2007, but has said there are still things he wants to accomplish in space.

"Why do people see a movie more than once? It's to enjoy it more thoroughly, to see more details, to do things that weren't possible the first time," Simonyi told SPACE.com in a recent interview.

He has planned a busy schedule of scientific research, educational outreach activities, and photo-taking of Earth. Simonyi, a Hungarian native, worked as a software executive at Microsoft before founding his own company, the Intentional Software Corp.

During his mission, Simonyi plans to blog daily about his experiences at his Web site: www.charlesinspace.com.

Long-duration stay

Veteran cosmonaut Padalka is set to take up residence on the station for 200 days as the Expedition 19 commander. Barratt, a rookie, will stay for the same term as a flight engineer on the station crew.

The two professionals plan to help prepare the orbiting laboratory to receive crews of six, expanded from the usual three, starting this summer.

"We don't see it so much as the population doubling, or just having less room, so much as finally getting up to the staffing that the station needs to function like it really should," Barratt told SPACE.com before the flight. "Everything we use on a day-to-day basis, whether it?s the pencils or the communications channels, we're just going to have to be a bit more careful and make sure that we can share those resources most efficiently. Hopefully we'll get a lot more productive with the six-person crew."

The three spaceflyers are set to dock at the space station Saturday at 9:15 a.m. ET (1315 GMT), a few hours before the space shuttle Discovery is slated to land in Florida. The shuttle is completing its 13-day STS-119 mission to the International Space Station (ISS) to deliver and install a final truss segment and solar panel arrays on the orbital outpost.

Discovery also carried up Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata to begin his three-month stay at the station. Wakata, who will be an Expedition 19 flight engineer, is his country's first long-duration spaceflyer. Previous station resident, NASA astronaut Sandra Magnus, will return home to Earth in Wakata's place on the shuttle, capping off a four-month trip.

SPACE.com will provide full coverage of Simonyi's second space tourist flight and the Expedition 19 mission with reporter Clara Moskowitz and senior editor Tariq Malik in New York. Click here for mission updates and SPACE.com's live NASA TV video feed.