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First space tourist returns to Earth

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Dennis Tito holds a news conference Friday accompanied by Russian cosmonauts Yuri Baturin, left, and Talgat Musabayev  

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'Menial tasks'

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ATLANTA, Georgia -- The world's first paying space tourist, U.S. businessman Dennis Tito, has descended back to Earth safely after six days aboard the orbiting international space station.

He landed in the Kazakh steppes Sunday aboard a Soyuz spacecraft which brought him and two Russian cosmonauts back to Earth from the International Space Station.

Along with Russian cosmonauts Talgat Musabayev and Yuri Baturin, Tito landed at 0542 GMT in a "hard" landing.

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Tito First Space Tourist
  •  Profile: Dennis Tito
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  •  Russia's plans
  •  Hilton's 1967 dream
 
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CNN's Steve Harrigan reports on how Dennis Tito's landing should go as he returns from space (May 5)

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CNN's Anne McDermott reports that Dennis Tito probably won't be the last space tourist (May 3)

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The pilots softened the fall with onboard rockets and a parachute.

Just over three hours earlier, the Russian Soyuz capsule had undocked from the international space station and embarked on its lightning voyage back to Earth.

The return trip by the 60-year-old multimillionaire who reportedly paid the Russian space agency $20 million was the final part of a fantastic space voyage.

But Tito returns to a growing row over whether tourists should be allowed to venture into space.

In a final video linkup from space, Tito said: "Personally, I've had the time of my life. I've achieved my dream and nothing could have been better. I thank everybody that supported my mission."

As they left the space station, Musabayev and American astronaut Jim Voss hugged, and Voss shook Tito's hand.

Tito and the cosmonauts then floated head-first into the Soyuz, their stockinged feet disappearing from view before the hatch connecting the capsule with the station was closed.

Inside the capsule, they switched on the power supply - the capsule had been drawing power from the space station -- and powered up the capsule's navigation computer.

They donned bulky spacesuits for the flight back to Earth and ensured the Soyuz was airtight before it undocking from the station.

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, then scuttled most of its weight including the habitation module, with toilet and kitchen, and the instrument module, with its batteries and solar wings.

That left only the 3.3-ton landing capsule.

The Soyuz craft's main parachute is scheduled to begin unfurling at 0526 GMT before retro-rockets fire to cushion its final descent. I n the last communications session with the crew, Mission Control in Korolyov, outside Moscow, asked Musabayev to give Tito two medicines and salt water to help him endure the stress of gravitational forces. He did not specify what the medicines were.

Flight commander Pyotr Klimuk told the crew that the weather was fine at the landing site near Arkalyk, about 400 kilometers (250 miles) southwest of the Kazak capital Astana, with scattered clouds, winds of three to seven meters (10 to 24 feet) per second and the temperature hovering around 20 Celsius (68 F).

After landing some 80 kilometres (50 miles) northeast of the tiny township of Arkalyk on the Kazak steppe, the trio will undergo preliminary medical tests in a mobile medical centre.

From there they will be flown to Astana airport for the official welcome by Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

A brief news conference is scheduled for 1200 GMT. Tito, Musabayev and Baturin will then fly to Moscow.

Russian space officials were hoping for an incident-free landing to sign off the controversial trip by Tito.

Former U.S. senator and ex-astronaut John Glenn took issue on Saturday with Tito's ride on a Russian spacecraft, calling it a misuse of the basic research mission of space exploration.

"I don't blame him wanting to go up," Glenn told CNN's "The Capital Gang." "And he's right. It's an incredible experience . . . But I just think it's a misuse of the spacecraft, and it was supposed to be for research."

NASA misgivings

Despite misgivings from NASA that Tito should have waited to take his joyride until more construction was completed on the multi-billion dollar complex, the trip ignited speculation that others among the jet-set would set their sights higher than the atmosphere.

Names that have surfaced include filmmaker James Cameron, an Oscar-winner looking for the perfect camera angle to capture planet Earth.

While praising Cameron for waiting for NASA's blessing to ride to the station, NASA chief Dan Goldin constantly took swipes at Tito before reporters and congress, referring to the gigantic ego and space unworthiness of the Wall Street investor.

"The current situation has put an incredible stress on the men and women of NASA," Goldin told a House subcommittee on Wednesday.

"Mr. Tito does not realize the effort of thousands of people, United States and Russia, who are working to protect his safety and the safety of everyone else."

Floating upward more than 200 miles, such protests hardly penetrated the thick hull of the floating complex, where Tito, a former NASA rocket scientist, enjoyed the congenial support of his Soyuz comrades, the courteous hospitality of two NASA astronauts living on Alpha and a warm embrace when he met the station's Russian commander.

Filled with the sounds of arias and overtures and the sights of passing continents and oceans, the serene world of citizen explorer Tito was interrupted only by an early bout of space nausea.

And the occasional press conference, when he dismissed Goldin's assertion that his presence threatened the safety of the space pros. Rather, Tito, who paid up to $20 million for the roundtrip vacation, was actually pitching in to help.

'Menial tasks'

"I've been shelling out food and doing rather menial tasks to assist the crew and give them more time for their other work," Tito said.

Safety was the reason Tito, 60, could make the trip in the first place. He tagged along with Russians Talgat Musabayev and Yuri Baturin, who delivered a fresh Soyuz escape capsule to Alpha last Monday.

A new Soyuz is needed every six months because toxic fuels aboard the Russian ships degrade and possibly corrode engine parts over time. The old vessel had about two weeks left on its 200-day warranty.

NASA, the leading partner among 16 nations piecing Alpha together, took umbrage because Moscow sold a seat on the Soyuz taxi flight to a non-professional.

But the cash-strapped Russian space program, which controls the passenger list on the essential Soyuz mission, could continue its experiment in high-flying capitalism, especially considering the ticket price covers the cost of the entire flight. Many will likely be ready to pay.

"Before I flew to space, I had no idea how comfortable it would be," Tito said. "I think if a lot of people know what I know now there would be a huge demand."

Perennial cash shortages, which prompted the Russians to start their space tourism business, have dogged Moscow's space programme since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In part theyforced Russia to abandon its pioneering Mir space station in March after a record-breaking 15 years.

Washington is footing the lion's share of the cost of the project, but Moscow, which has unrivalled experience of long-term space flight, has designed and built many key parts.

It sees U.S. opposition to the Tito flight as politically motivated.



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Space tourist visits U.S. turf on orbiting outpost
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