AMERICAN space tourist back on Earth after voyage in 'paradise'

Sunday, May 6th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ASTANA, Kazakstan (AP) _ The Russian capsule carrying the world's first paying space tourist landed successfully Sunday on the steppes of Kazakstan, ending American Dennis Tito's multimillion-dollar adventure in the cosmos.

``It was perfect. It was paradise,'' Tito said, grinning as he relaxed in a chair near the Soyuz craft that delivered the California tycoon and two cosmonaut crewmates to Earth after six days in space. ``It was a great flight, a great landing, a soft landing. ''

Recovery helicopters saw the Soyuz capsule's rockets fire to brake its descent about 3 feet above the ground. Three spotter planes, 10 helicopters and four all-terrain vehicles sped to the landing area to meet Tito and cosmonauts Talgat Musabayev and Yuri Baturin.

Before undocking from the International Space Station for a return voyage that took less than four hours, the Soyuz crew gathered with the three astronauts staying on at the station for a final video linkup with Mission Control in Korolyov, outside Moscow.

Musabayev and American astronaut Jim Voss hugged, but Voss gave Tito a more formal farewell, shaking his hand. Tito and the cosmonauts then floated headfirst into the Soyuz, their stockinged feet disappearing from view before the hatch connecting the capsule with the station was closed.

A video attached to the capsule showed the space station quickly receding in the distance and the Earth coming into view. The capsule orbited Earth once before braking and shedding its habitation and instrument modules to lighten the load.

In the last communications session with the crew, Mission Control asked Musabayev to give Tito two unspecified medicines and salt water to help him endure the stress of gravitational forces.

The capsule touched down near Arkalyk, about 250 miles southwest of the Kazak capital, Astana. It lay on its side, blackened by the fiery re-entry through the atmosphere.

A smell of burning metal hung in the air as crowds of officials, reporters and a few curious onlookers crowded around the returning space travelers, still strapped in their seats.

The two cosmonauts walked to a nearby medical tent for a checkup, but Tito had trouble walking so two men carried him in his chair. Someone in the crowd handed him an apple, which he tossed into the air as if testing gravity on Earth.

Tito exulted that his space experience was ''10 times better'' than what he had expected, but said he did not want to make the trip again.

``I want other people to make it instead,'' he said.

The crew flew to the airport in Astana for a welcome by Kazak President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Women in folk costume presented the three with bouquets of red roses.

``In the past, it was only in science fiction novels that you could read about ordinary people being able to go to space. But you laid the foundation for space tourism,'' Nazarbayev told Tito.

``The personal experience went well beyond my dreams,'' Tito said before departing for Star City, the cosmonaut training facility outside Moscow where the 6-year-old underwent months of preparation.

Russian space officials said that training made him as competent as any professional space traveler, but the U.S. space agency NASA vigorously objected. It contended that having a recreational traveler aboard the space station could impair work conducted on the 16-nation project.

Tito, a Santa Monica, Calif., financier, paid a reported $20 million for the trip, which originally was to be to Russia's Mir space station. But after Russia decided to dump the deteriorating Mir into the Pacific Ocean, the space station became his destination.

NASA eventually dropped its complaints, but then asked Russia to postpone the launch because astronauts were experiencing computer problems affecting the space shuttle Endeavour, which was docked at the station.

Russia resisted the plea and the Soyuz crew blasted off April 28 from Baikonur, the sprawling launch facility that the Russian space program leases from Kazakstan.

Tito, after experiencing a bout of space sickness en route to the space station, expressed nothing but delight with the trip. He said Sunday that it had been ``great'' for the U.S. space agency.

``They might not know it, but this is the best thing that's happened for NASA,'' he said.

Yuri Semyonov, the head of RKK Energiya _ the space engineering firm that built the Russian modules used on the international space station _ hailed the flight Sunday as an important precedent.

``We are satisfied with this flight and we see the beginning of commercial exploitation of the international station,'' he told reporters at Mission Control, tacitly rejecting NASA chief Daniel Goldin's complaint that Tito's trip had caused ``incredible stress'' because thousands of NASA workers were required to ensure his safety.

``Tito will return to his homeland and settle with his own government,'' Semyonov said.