BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan: US software mogul Charles Simonyi and two Russian cosmonauts blasted into orbit on Saturday aboard a Russian spaceship watched by Simonyi’s friend, lifestyle guru Martha Stewart.
The Soyuz TMA-10 spacecraft, with a roar of its engines, lifted off from the Kazakh steppe into the night sky exactly on schedule at 11:31 p.m. (1731 GMT).
Nine minutes later, louspeakers at the launch-pad announced the rocket had safely delivered Simonyi -- the world’s fifth space tourist who paid $25 million for the trip -- into orbit.
“He had a big grin on his face,” said Simonyi’s family spokeswoman Susan Hutchison, who was able to see the crew via a live camera inside the cockpit as the spacecraft pulled away from the launch-pad.
Simonyi, a 58-year-old billionaire who helped found Microsoft, is making a 12-day round trip to the International Space Station (ISS). He was joined on the outward flight by Russian cosmonauts Fyodor Yurchikhin and Oleg Kotov.
As the crew bid farewell before boarding the craft, two and a half hours before the launch, a crowd of friends and relatives shouted “Charles, have a good flight” and “Go, Charles”.
Stewart, a close friend of Simonyi and a celebrity in the United States, spent the day touring Baikonur, a scattering of Soviet-era buildings in the middle of the Kazakh steppe, while she waited for the night launch.
She took a ride on a camel and examined a yurt, a Kazakh felt hut. “Baikonur is beautiful,” she said.
Simonyi is carrying a special dinner packed in an aluminium container which he will share with ISS colleagues on Russia’s Cosmonauts Day, 12 April.
Stewart chose the menu featuring quail roasted in wine, duck breast with capers and rice pudding, among other courses. The two Americans have been reported to be romantically linked.
In a private farewell before the launch, Stewart and Simonyi, separated by a glass quarantine panel, exchanged personal words and waved goodbye to one another.
Asked about speculation in some media about their private life, spokeswoman Hutchison said: “I think he is extremely focused on space right now.”
“I can tell you if he wanted to propose marriage to her he would not do so through a glass window,” she added.
Simonyi was born in Hungary and moved to the United States where he joined a start-up company called Microsoft and made a fortune developing some of its most profitable applications like Word.
Simonyi, who now runs his own company, and the Russian cosmonauts are due to dock with the ISS on Monday.
“He is calm, his blood pressure was healthy and his pulse was low this morning when they did the final test,” said Hutchison.