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Space tourist Tito blasts off

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Tito (middle) and the two cosmonauts enter the rocket  

BAIKONUR COSMODROME, Kazakhstan (CNN) -- A Russian Soyuz rocket has launched carrying the first ever space tourist and two Russian cosmonauts to the international space station.

NASA had strongly objected to the presence of Dennis Tito -- a Californian billionaire and former NASA employee -- on the mission, but dropped its complaint earlier this week. It also emphasised his trip was a one-time exemption.

The rocket blasted off from the barren plains of Central Asia under sunny, blue skies, and disappeared into the clouds, leaving a trail of red flame and then a faint trail.

In a pre-flight interview with CNN, Tito, who paid $20 million to go on the mission, said: "This is not a vacation, (it's) the fulfillment of a life's dream to fly into space.

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"Only 400 people have flown in space, so that is for me a privilege to be able to actually observe the Earth from outer space, circle the Earth you know once every 90 minutes."

The Russia Space Agency and NASA came to an agreement only hours before the scheduled liftoff time, ironing out technical difficulties arising from a computer glitch aboard the international space station (ISS).

The ISS has suffered a series of glitches since Tuesday that left ground controllers with only tentative command.

U.S. space agency NASA wanted to keep the space shuttle Endeavour docked until Mission Control is in firm control once more, and said there was a danger of collision if the Russian Soyuz module tried to dock before it was ready to leave.

Meanwhile, only one of three command-and-control computers on space station Alpha continues to work, affecting the robotics test. NASA prefers to have at least one backup computer running before conducting such tests.

NASA has re-scheduled the robot handoff operation for Saturday morning, but acknowledges the procedure could be delayed again if the computers aren't functioning properly. The test was originally scheduled for this past Wednesday.

In that procedure, Alpha's new robot arm is to hand off its 3,000-pound packing crate to the shuttle's arm -- a maneuver designed to test the new arm's flexibility. The crate is to be placed in Endeavour's payload bay for return to Earth.

The Russians said they would delay the Soyuz's docking to the station if more time was needed to resolve the computer problems.

If Endeavour was still docked with the space station when the Soyuz arrived, the Russian rocket would come very close to shuttle's tail, according to shuttle flight director Phil Engelauf.

Endeavour originally was scheduled to land Monday at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The shuttle now will land no earlier than Tuesday.

The Soyuz is expected to arrive at the ISS on Monday.



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RELATED SITE:
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International space station Alpha

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