KOROLYOV, Russia (AP) _ An American billionaire who won a junior cosmonaut contest as a child returned Saturday from a dream voyage to the international space station, riding a Russian capsule to a soft landing on the Kazakh steppe
Charles Simonyi, a 58-year-old native of Hungary who helped design Microsoft Word and Excel, smiled and chatted with rescuers who helped him gingerly out of the Soyuz capsule and appeared energized by his $25 million, two-week trip.
The capsule carrying the space tourist, a Russian cosmonaut and a U.S. astronaut touched down after a more than three-hour return trip from the orbital station.
Simonyi looked delighted after rescuers helped him from 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.
He then bit enthusiastically into a green apple _ a traditional offering for space crews touching down in Kazakhstan, which is famous for the tasty fruit.
Asked about his first impressions back on Earth, a smiling Simonyi said in Russian, ``The sun is shining, the weather is good,'' in footage broadcast on state television. Simonyi had studied Russian in school in his native Hungary and took another language course in preparation for the flight.
Cosmonaut Mikhail 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 the television network.
Spanish-born U.S. astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria, the last out of the capsule, sighed with relief, smiled and talked to the support crew as doctors monitored the men's vital signs.
The astronaut set the U.S. record for continuous space flight by spending 215 days in orbit, and set another U.S. 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.
Russian space agency chief Anatoly Perminov said all the cosmonauts ``feel wonderful.''
``But of course, Charles Simonyi feels the best, which is understandable,'' he said. ``He is already giving interviews left and right.''
Simonyi arrived at the station on April 9 _ also courtesy of a Soyuz, which flew into space atop a Russian rocket from the Russian-leased launch facility in Baikonur, Kazakhstan _ along with two other cosmonauts, who will remain on the station for about six months.
Also staying in orbit was Sunita Williams, an American astronaut who arrived in December.
Simonyi amassed the fortune that made his costly voyage possible through his work with computer software, including helping to develop Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel.
Another household name, his friend Martha Stewart, watched his launch from Baikonur and was at Russian Mission Control outside Moscow when the Soyuz docked. She also spoke to him during a video linkup after he boarded the station.
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 U.S.-based Space Adventures Ltd.
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.
``So many years have passed and the dream he had has been fulfilled,'' Krasnov said. ``It costs dearly to realize your life's dream.''