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Capsule Undocks From Space Station

May 5, 2002

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ASTANA, Kazakhstan (AP) _ The Soyuz capsule carrying South African space tourist Mark Shuttleworth successfully undocked early Sunday from the International Space station and began its descent to Earth, Russia’s Mission Control reported.

Shuttleworth, a 28-year old Internet tycoon, won’t soon forget his $20 million 10-day trip. To make sure he’ll have a big souvenir to remind him of his journey into space that he has described as living a dream, he has bought the Soyuz capsule and his space suit.

A video of the undocking flashed across the screen at Russian Mission Control headquarters, with Shuttleworth’s mother looking on. The Soyuz capsule could be clearly seen separating from the International Space Station.

On his last day aboard the station, Shuttleworth took time to do something every traveler can identify with _ catch up on some sleep, allowing himself an extra hour.

But Shuttleworth’s mission was also jam-packed with experiments and projects, enough to keep the world’s second paying space tourist busy at work from 6 a.m. to about 11:30 p.m. most days.

His last task was completing preparations for the undocking from the space station for the more than three-hour descent to Earth in the Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

Five Russian planes, nine helicopters and five cross-country rescue vehicles were on call to retrieve Shuttleworth and his two crewmates, Flight Commander Yuri Gidzenko and rookie Italian astronaut Roberto Vittori, from their landing in the barren Kazakh steppes.

``It’s hard to believe we are getting ready to welcome him back already,″ said Dale Cupido, a Shuttleworth aide based at Russia’s Mission Control. ``He is feeling a bit sad because he is leaving the station, but also very excited. He’s looking forward to the return.″

Russian technicians, working from Earth, test-fired the Soyuz’s engines Thursday in preparation for departure. A few hours before undocking, the Soyuz crew switched on the power supply, squeezed into their spacesuits and strapped themselves snugly into the cramped quarters.

The more than three-ton capsule will resemble a fiery ball as it plunges at 10 times the speed of sound through the Earth’s atmosphere, its outer wall reaching temperatures of 18,000 degrees.

But after breaking through, a natural drag will slow the capsule down and roughly one minute from impact, a parachute should automatically open, reducing its speed even further.

Just seconds before touching ground, the capsule’s engines fire in an attempt to give the crew a ``soft″ landing, said Shuttleworth’s father, Rick, who flew to Kazakhstan to welcome his eldest son home.

But even a soft landing can still shake-up the crew, whose bodies must quickly adjust from zero-gravity to Earth’s gravitational pull. The Russian Soyuz capsule is also known to frequently end up on its side during landing.

When the world’s first space tourist, American businessman Dennis Tito, returned from his flight last year, he followed an already popular tradition and took advantage of the help offered him _ choosing to be carried in his chair after landing rather than testing out his still-unsteady legs.

``It could be a rocky landing,″ Rick Shuttleworth said. ``I’ll be interested to see how Mark is feeling.″

After landing, Shuttleworth and the other crew will be evaluated by Russian medical experts, then the trio will return to Russia’s Star City for another few days of observation.

Rick Shuttleworth said when his son is cleared by medical experts, his family plans to take him on vacation. The location is secret, but Shuttleworth’s father said it will be of a more relaxing, less life-threatening kind.

This fall, the world’s second space tourist plans a tour around South African schools to promote space studies, his father said.

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