U.S. billionaire Charles Simonyi will roar off into space aboard a Russian rocket on Thursday to make history as the first tourist to make the odyssey twice.
Hungarian-born Simonyi, who made much of his fortune developing software at Microsoft, will blast off from the Baikonur cosmodrome in the Kazakh steppe at 1149 GMT (7:49 a.m. EDT) to dock with the International Space Station (ISS) two days later.
At Baikonur, hidden in the barren steppes of central Kazakhstan, heavy rain lashed hard against the sleek Soyuz spaceship, its nose pointing high into the heavy skies, as engineers went through final checks ahead of the launch.
Simonyi, 60, will blast off into space in the crammed interior of the rocket alongside Russia's Gennady Padalka and U.S. astronaut Michael Barratt.
Charles! Good luck! shouted a crowd of his friends and family, including his 28-year-old Swedish wife Lisa Persdotter, as the trio emerged from their hotel and headed for the launch pad.
Simonyi, who paid a total of $60 million for his two space trips, looked confident as he blew a kiss at his wife, clad in a floor-length fur coat against the chilly weather.
Simonyi has said he would be hanging up his space suit for good after this last trek.
I cannot fly for the third time because I have just married and I have to spend time with my family, Simonyi told a pre-flight news briefing from behind a hermetic glass partition.
He is set to return to earth on April 7 with Michael Fincke, U.S. commander of outgoing Expedition 18, and Russian flight engineer Yuri Lonchakov.
He is in great spirit, he is very excited. He feels very privileged to be able to go to space again, Eric Anderson, president and CEO of Space Adventures which arranges space trips, told Reuters.
Russia has borne the brunt of sending crews and cargo to the multi-national ISS since the U.S. Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated on re-entry in 2003, killing its crew of seven.
A source in Russia's space industry told Reuters two space tourists could be launched in 2011. He gave no further details.
Space Adventures admitted its business was affected by the global financial crisis. The number of billionaires has been cut in half, Anderson said, adding however that demand for space trips appeared to be stable for now.
It's a very long term thing, he said. You don't just wake up in the morning one day and decide to go to space.
(Additional reporting by Shamil Zhumatov in Baikonur; Writing by Dmitry Solovyov and Maria Golovnina)