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Millionaire scientist hurtles toward international space station

Sunday, October 2, 2005

BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan -- U.S. millionaire scientist Gregory Olsen and an American-Russian crew hurtled toward the international space station Saturday on a Soyuz craft in a journey his family said was motivated by a devotion to science.

Relatives and friends of Olsen, astronaut William McArthur and cosmonaut Valery Tokarev gasped as the Russian craft lifted off in a burst of flame from the Baikonur cosmodrome and soared into the bright autumn sky over the steppes of Kazakhstan.

As the announcement came that the spacecraft had entered its initial designated orbit nine minutes after the launch, the crowd burst into applause.

The crew reported that all was well aboard the Soyuz TMA-7 capsule, which will rendezvous on Monday with the station floating some 250 miles above the Earth.

"Life is good," said Cynthia McArthur, whose husband is a three-time veteran of U.S. space shuttle flights.

However, Russian space officials injected a sour note, warning that they could not guarantee McArthur's return next spring at the end of his and Tokarev's six-month mission unless NASA pays for the flight.

Since the 2003 Columbia disaster grounded the U.S. shuttle fleet, the United States has depended on Russian Soyuz and Progress craft to ferry its astronauts and supplies to the orbiting space station. Discovery visited the station in July, but problems with the foam insulation on its external fuel tank cast doubt on when the shuttle will fly again.

U.S. law currently bars NASA from making such payments to Russia.

The Soyuz make twice-yearly missions to the station to deliver new crews and bring back astronauts.

McArthur and Tokarev are replacing Russian Sergei Krikalev and American John Phillips, who will return to Earth on Oct. 11, along with Olsen, a 60-year-old founder of an infrared-camera maker based in Princeton, N.J. He reportedly paid $20 million for a seat on the Expedition 12 flight.

Olsen's daughter, Krista Dibsie, 31, videotaped the launch. "There goes Dad," she said quietly, tears rolling down her cheeks. "Love ya, Dad."

"Now I'm nervous for him," she said. "I wasn't before but now he's up there and, gosh, he's out of this world. I know that's a corny thing to say, but I can't believe it."

Her father, who holds advanced degrees in physics and materials science, has defended his presence in the capsule as a necessary step in the evolution of space travel.

"I would hope that my flight would help, if just to make space flight more routine," Olsen said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press on the eve of the flight.

At Russian Mission Control in Korolyov, outside Moscow, Olsen's sister, Amy McCarroll, said her brother was motivated by a devotion to science.

"He is a scientist first of all, and that's his main reason for going up there ... to help mankind, to see what comes from his experiments," she said.

The cash-strapped Russian agency has turned to space tourism to generate money. Olsen is the third non-astronaut to visit the orbiting station: California businessman Dennis Tito paid about $20 million for a weeklong trip to the space station in 2001, and South African Mark Shuttleworth followed a year later.

Olsen said he preferred the term "space flight participant" to "space tourist."

"'Tourism' implies that anyone can just write a check and go up there. That's not what happened," he told AP.

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, who met with his Russian counterpart, Anatoly Perminov, in Baikonur for talks on the future of joint space missions, warned that Moscow's demands for payment could end U.S participation.

Russia has made it clear that it expects the United States to make payment or some sort of capital investment in exchange for future U.S. participation on Russian flights.

But a law passed in 2000 penalizes countries that sell unconventional weapons and missile technology to Iran -- and Russia is helping Iran build an $800 million atomic power plant despite concerns Tehran will build nuclear weapons.

The U.S. Senate has agreed to amend the measure and lift the ban on NASA purchases of Soyuz seats until 2012. The House has yet to act on it.

Griffin said unless exemptions are made for NASA's work with Russia, it was possible that no U.S. astronauts would be flying on the next Soyuz mission in April.

"At issue is whether there will be future U.S. crew members and future U.S. crew missions if the congressional provisions are not granted," he said.

NASA officials in Texas have said they expect McArthur to return aboard a Soyuz, one way or another.


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