A leap forward, Mbeki tells Mark

Moscow - Mark Shuttleworth, a South African millionaire and his continent's first astronaut, boarded the International Space Station on Saturday after a two-day trip through space on a Russian craft.

The Soyuz space taxi carrying internet millionaire Shuttleworth, Russian commander Yuri Gidzenko and Italian flight engineer Roberto Vittori docked with the ISS after blasting off from Baikonur base in Kazakhstan on Thursday.

Footage from Moscow's Mission Control showed the three-man crew clambering into the ISS roughly an hour after the Soyuz latched onto the station. Gidzenko was greeted with a warm hug from current Russian commander Yuri Onufriyenko.

The three visitors gathered before the station's cameras with the ISS's Russian-US crew to speak to Moscow.

"We're very happy to have a group of visitors on board. It's nice to see new faces," US crewman Carl Walz told Moscow, where relatives anxiously watched the Soyuz crew's arrival.

"It was wonderful to see him looking so well," Shuttleworth's mother, Ronelle, said as she stood with other family members. "He communicated with us yesterday and said he was feeling wonderful."

Freedom Day

Shuttleworth, the second man to pay Moscow a reported $20 million for a trip to the ISS, spoke with South African President Thabo Mbeki on a video link-up as part of Freedom Day celebrations marking the end of apartheid.

"Everything went very smoothly," said Shuttleworth, a Bafana Bafana soccer jersey. "I have truly never seen anything as beautiful as the earth from space, and I can't imagine anything that can surpass that."

Shuttleworth showed Mbeki his space food, and described the practicalities of living in zero-gravity conditions.

"Sleeping is very comfortable - there is no need to choose sides (of the bed)," he joked. Mbeki thanked the 28-year-old for his research into the HIV/Aids virus plaguing South Africa and for setting an example.

"I'm quite certain this will go down in history as one of the moments when we made a big leap forward," said Mbeki, speaking in front of a crowd of 6 000 at the Free State Rugby Stadium in Bloemfontein.

"I really wanted to say thank you very much for this example."

"We are carrying a cellphone with us - the only thing we asked was that he phone us from space," his father Rick said.

Shuttleworth was initially slammed at home for spending a fortune on a personal whim. But he has since become the toast of his country as the world's first "afronaut".

Aboard the ISS, Shuttleworth will carry out experiments on genetics and HIV/Aids - a crippling problem for his home nation where one in nine people are infected with the disease.

He will also lead a campaign to broaden the appeal of science through a series of radio link-ups with school children.

The three men will spend eight days aboard the outpost before landing back on the Kazakh steppe early on May 5.

The visitors will return to earth on the old Soyuz-TM33 already at the ISS, leaving their own, newer, Soyuz-TM34 craft at the station to act as a lifeboat in case of emergency.

The ISS, manned since 2000, is currently staffed by Russian commander Onufriyenko and US engineers Walz and Dan Bursch.

American businessman Dennis Tito, the first amateur to pay his way into orbit, travelled to the 16-nation ISS last April.

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