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Billionaire Simonyi returns safely from space visit

Upon return from his visit to the International Space Station, Charles Simonyi said, "It's good to be back, good to be back on Earth. Fantastic."

Alexei Krasnov, head of the manned missions at the Russian space agency, praised Simonyi's determination, recounting that Simonyi won a trip to Moscow to meet with a Soviet cosmonaut more than 40 years ago. A US software billionaire who won a junior cosmonaut contest as a child in Communist-ruled Hungary returned Saturday from a dream voyage to the international space station, riding a Russian capsule down to the Kazakh steppe along with a Russian and an American who spent seven months in orbit. Space tourist Charles Simonyi, a 58-year-old who helped create Microsoft Relevant Products/Services Word and Excel, smiled and chatted with rescuers who helped him gingerly out of the Soyuz capsule and appeared energized by his $25 million (€19 million), two-week trip.

The capsule carrying Simonyi, Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin, and Spanish-born US astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria touched down after a more than three-hour trip from the orbital station. It kicked up a big dust cloud on impact, but a spokesman at Mission Control outside Moscow called it a "soft landing." Simonyi looked delighted after rescuers helped him out of the rounded capsule, which lay askew on the bleak grassland, and into a chair covered with fur for warmth. He smiled, grinned broadly and spoke animatedly with members of a support crew who greeted him with hugs and handshakes. "It's good to be back, good to be back on Earth," Simonyi said in footage from the scene. "Fantastic." He bit enthusiastically into a green apple -- which has become a traditional offering for space crews touching down in Kazakhstan, famous for its apples. Asked about his first impressions upon return, a smiling Simonyi uttered in Russian, "The sun is shining. The weather is good," in footage broadcast of the state Vesti-24 network. Simonyi had studied Russian in school in Hungary - he left the country at age 17 - and took another language course in preparation for the flight. Tyurin looked pale and tired, but soon managed a smile in a video link with Mission Control. "The first thing I felt on Earth was the smell," he told Vesti-24. Lopez-Alegria, the last out of the capsule, sighed with relief, smiled and talked to the support crew as doctors measured the men's vital signs. He drank from a bottle of what appeared to be water.

Alegria set the US record for continuous space flight by spending 215 days in orbit. He also set another US record - 10 space walks over his career. The capsule raced down to Earth after separating from the two other sections of the Soyuz TMA-9 craft following its departure from the station, where one of the final tasks the travelers performed was to move containers with biological experiments from refrigerators on the station into the Soyuz. "I crossed my fingers all the way, and I am very happy now," Simonyi's brother, Tamás, said at Mission Control. "Yes, I was nervous, but now it's a big relief to know that he's safe and sound and that the crew is safe and sound." Russian space agency chief Anatoly Perminov said all the cosmonauts "feel wonderful." "But of course, Charles Simonyi feels the best, which is understandable. He is already giving interviews left and right," he said. Anatoly Grigoryev, head of a Russian biomedical institute responsible for cosmonauts' health, said it was "quite natural" that Tyurin and Lopez-Alegria, who spent much longer in space, would take longer to recover on Earth. Simonyi boarded the station on April 10 - also courtesy of a Soyuz, launched from the Russian-leased facility in Baikonur, Kazakhstan - along with cosmonauts Fyodor Yurchikhin and Oleg Kotov, who will remain on the station for about six months. Also staying in orbit was American astronaut Sunita Williams, who arrived in December.

Simonyi, 58, amassed the fortune that made his costly voyage possible through his work with computer software, including helping to develop Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel. He is also associated with another major American household name: lifestyle maven Martha Stewart. Simonyi was seen off at Baikonur by Stewart, who is a friend and who also watched the Soyuz dock from Russian Mission Control and spoke to him during a video linkup after he boarded the station. Space officials said the trio would be flown to the Moscow area and taken to Star City, Russia's cosmonaut training center. Simonyi followed in the footsteps of Dennis Tito, Mark Shuttleworth, Gregory Olsen and Anousheh Ansari -- all "space flight participants" who have traveled to the international space station aboard Russian rockets in trips brokered by US-based Space Adventures Ltd. Briton Helen Sharman in 1991 took a trip to the Soviet station Mir that she won through a contest, and a Japanese journalist traveled to Mir in 1990 with a ticket that reportedly cost $12 million. Alexei Krasnov, head of the manned missions at the Russian space agency, praised Simonyi's determination, recounting that he won a trip to Moscow to meet with a Soviet cosmonaut as a prize in a space contest at age 13, more than 40 years ago. "So many years have passed and the dream he had has been fulfilled," Krasnov said. "It costs dearly to realize your life's dream." (