A Russian rocket carrying U.S. billionaire Charles Simonyi and two cosmonauts blasted off late Saturday from the Baikonur cosmodrome en route to the international space station.
The Soyuz capsule roared into the overcast nighttime skies over the bleak Kazakh steppes on-time at 11:31 p.m. local time (1731 GMT), bathing the launch pad and dozens of officials and well-wishers standing about 1.2 miles away in a glow of flame as it rose vertically then turned northeast and moved downrange.
The capsule entered orbit about 10 minutes later, about 124 miles above the Earth, and was scheduled to rendezvous with the orbiting station late Monday, Moscow time.
Simonyi, a 58-year-old Hungarian-born software programmer who helped develop Microsoft Word, paid more than $20 million for a 13-day trip to the orbiting station. He is the fifth paying "space tourist" — or space flight participant — to make the trip.
"It was the best thing I've seen in my life, and to be here with Charles means a lot to me," said Victoria Scott, a friend of Simonyi's who watched the blastoff. "I think for Charles it is a dream come true."
Also among those bidding farewell to Simonyi and cosmonauts Fyodor Yurchikhin and Oleg Kotov was Simonyi's friend Martha Stewart, an American lifestyle guru who runs a home decorating and cooking business empire.
Stewart's presence in Baikonur inspired wide speculation that she and Simonyi — friends for decades — were planning to announce their engagement; some celebrity-gossip publications have suggested they were romantically linked.
As workers fueled the rocket on which the Soyuz TMA-10 capsule sits, Simonyi, Yurchikhin and Kotov met earlier Saturday with experts and engineers for medical tests and pressure tests on their space suits.
In the final hours after being strapped into the capsule, the crew made final checks on emergency systems and leak monitors and occasionally batted at a stuffed black cat mascot hanging from rope in the capsule. According to NASA, the mascot is a token of good luck chosen by Kotov and named Dimla, after his two children.
In a posting on the blog he intends to maintain while in orbit, Simonyi said he spent his final day getting a haircut and a therapeutic massage, and watched a traditional showing of a classic Soviet-era war film. There was no mention of Stewart.
Stewart chose the menu for a gourmet meal that Simonyi will be taking to the station as a treat for his comrades in space. They plan a feast on Thursday, celebrated as Cosmonauts' Day in Russia after Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space on that day in 1961.
The menu includes quail roasted in Madiran wine, duck breast confit with capers, shredded chicken parmentier, apple fondant pieces, rice pudding with candied fruit, and semolina cake with dried apricots.
Simonyi began programming on a bulky Soviet computer called Ural-2 as a teenager in Hungary. After emigrating to the United States in 1968, he worked at Xerox Corp. and later at Microsoft Corp., helping to develop Microsoft Word and Excel before eventually founding his own software company.
While at the space station, Simonyi will be conducting a number of experiments, including measuring radiation levels and studying biological organisms inside the lab.
Simonyi returns to Earth on April 20, along with the two of the station's current crew — Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin and American astronaut Miguel Lopez-Alegria.