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American Billionaire, Astronauts Share Smiles Aboard Space Station

American Billionaire, Astronauts Share Smiles Aboard Space Station
The world's fifth space tourist Charles Simonyi (bottom center) and the joint space station crews of Expeditions 14 and 15 share smiles after speaking with reporters on April 10, 2007. Clockwise from top left are: Expedition 14 commander Michael Lopez-Alegria, Expedition 14/15 flight engineer Sunita Williams, Expedition 14 flight engineer Mikhail Tyurin, Expedition 15 commander Fyodor Yurchikhin, Simonyi and Expedition 15 flight engineer Oleg Kotov.
(Image: © NASA TV.)

An Americanbillionaire and five professional astronauts were all smiles Tuesday as theykicked off a nearly two-week changing of the guard activity aboard theInternational Space Station (ISS).

U.S.entrepreneur CharlesSimonyi - the world's fifth space tourist to the ISS - and the station's Expedition14 and Expedition 15 astronaut crews are spending the first full day of a 11-daycrew change operation performing maintenance and hand-over tasks.

Simonyi arrivedat the space station on Monday with Expedition 15 commander FyodorYurchikhin and flight engineer Oleg Kotov, capping a two-day trek that beganwith the April7 launch of their Russia-built Soyuz TMA-10 spacecraft from BaikonurCosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

"The lablooks great," Yurchikhin, who last visited the space station during NASA'sSTS-112 shuttle flight in October 2002. "Everything, every equipment, I thinkis still in the same place...I am at my home."

Yurchikhinand Kotov are taking control of the ISS from Expedition 14 commanderMichael Lopez-Alegria and flight engineer Mikhail Tyurin, who have lived aboardthe orbital laboratory since September 2006 and are nearing the end of theirseven-month mission. The two cosmonauts will also welcome NASA astronaut SunitaWilliams, an Expedition 14 flight engineer, into their crew ranks for the firststage of their orbital mission.

Lopez-Alegriawill set a U.S. record for the longest uninterrupted spaceflight when he andTyurin return to Earth aboard their Soyuz TMA-9 spacecraft on April 20, alongwith Simonyi, after 214 days in orbit. Their initial six-month mission was extended toone month after a launch date shift for their ISS replacements.

"I wasreally very happy to stay up here and I kind of really didn't want to go homeuntil just recently," Lopez-Alegria said in the crew conference. "I think sevenmonths is just fine."

Cozyspace tourist

ForSimonyi, who is paying between $20 million and $25 million for a 13-dayspaceflight to the ISS, reaching the orbital laboratory has meant coming togrips with the absence of Earth's ever-present gravitation pull.

"Myexperience is very positive. I think that weightlessness is fine," Simonyi saidfrom the station's U.S. Destiny laboratory. "It requires adaptation, and thetraining I got at Star City and Baikonur really helped me."

Simonyi,58, has carried a lifelong interest in spaceflight from his days representinghis native Hungary as a Junior Astronaut at age 13 to his work as a formerMicrosoft software developer and accomplished pilot. He is documenting hisspaceflight via images, videos and a blog on his Web site www.charlesinspace.com, whichreceived 10 million hits on launch day according to spokesperson SusanHutchinson, who spoke with Simonyi Tuesday during a ground-to-space call.

Hutchinsonsaid more than 950 questions have been submitted to Simonyi's Web site sincehis launch, one of which asked what the space tourist's greatest surprise andjoy has been in his first few days in space.

"I thinkthe greatest joy was arriving at the space station and seen the space stationstructure for the first time from the inside, " Simonyi said. "It's anunforgettable experience."

Simonyiliked the view of the ISS from inside the Soyuz TMA-10 spacecraft duringdocking to that of a stage set for an opera, with the twilight casting an oddpurple light on the station before the Sun came over the Earth's horizons. Butinside, the atmosphere was markedly different, he added.

"Inside,it's a very cozy place," Simonyi said of the space station. "I can see howFyodor feels like it's home."

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