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US space tourist unfazed by satellite smashup

STAR CITY, Russia — A U.S.

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STAR CITY, Russia — A U.S. billionaire who is making his second flight to the international space station said Thursday he was not worried about the debris that last month’s satellite collision sent hurtling through space.

Hungarian-born Charles Simonyi, the station’s last tourist before its regular crew of three expands to six, blasts off March 26 for a 13-day trip.

“I’m not concerned,” said Simonyi, 60, speaking from Russia’s premier cosmonaut training facility at Star City, just outside Moscow. “The monitored orbits are very safe,” he said, in reference to the trajectories of satellites and other large objects circling the Earth.

Anything the debris comes into contact with is likely to be obliterated, officials say. But they have voiced confidence the crew are in no danger because the collision of the derelict Russian spacecraft and a working U.S.commercial satellite occurred significantly farther from the Earth’s surface than the altitude at which the station is orbiting.

Simonyi, a software pioneer who studied mathematics and statistics, said the laws of probability helped him feel “absolutely safe.”

Simonyi helped create now-ubiquitous computer programs for U.S. giant Microsoft before founding his own company, Intentional Software Corp.

A keen aviator, he is set to become the first space tourist to return to space, having spent 12 days at the station in April 2007. He is to travel into space with Russian commander Gennady Padalka and U.S. flight engineer Michael Barratt.

Simonyi said he would spend his time conducting radiation experiments, assisting the crew and communicating via e-mail and phone with his family.

Since 2001, six “private spaceflight participants” have paid $20 million and up for flights aboard Russian-built Soyuz crafts. Simonyi paid $35 million for his seat in the Soyuz, and passed on the opportunity to fork over an extra $10 million for a six-hour spacewalk, citing price and fitness concerns.

It is to be his last trip into space, he said, citing a promise to his wife.

“I cannot fly a third time,” he said. “The wife is absolutely against it.”

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