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Brazil's first astronaut elevated to superhero status after 9-day voyage

Brazil's first astronaut touched down in a freezing Kazakhstan yesterday amid a cacophony of praise in his native country. Yet as some bickered about who should play Marcos Cesar Pontes in the cinema version of his historic nine-day journey, others dismissed the 43-year-old cosmonaut as a "space tourist" manipulated by vote-hunting politicians.

The space capsule carrying Mr Pontes, along with American Bill McArthur and Russian Valery Tokarev - who had spent six months on the space station - touched down in northern Kazakhstan after a three-and-a-half-hour flight.

Mr Pontes, who had carried a Brazilian football shirt to the space station in hopes it would bring his national team victory in the World Cup, ebulliently thanked the ground crew in English. "I am very happy," he said.

A native of the small city of Bauru, around 250 miles west of Sao Paulo, Mr Pontes has been elevated to the ranks of sporting heroes such as Pele and Ayrton Senna since he blasted off into space 10 days ago.

Live links to the astronaut have been broadcast on prime-time television, while family members have been shipped into TV studios to pore over minute details of his adventure, which included an experiment on the capacity of Brazil's national dish, the black feijao bean, to germinate in space. But as Mr Pontes stepped from the capsule clutching a Brazilian flag yesterday, controversy raged among intellectuals and newspaper columnists as to the true scientific value of his trip, rumoured to have cost about $10m (£5.7m).

"From everything that I have read until now, the journey of the first Brazilian astronaut does not have the slightest importance - apart from for Pontes himself, family and friends," wrote one influential political blogger last week.

"It is important for the government. It's another marketing manoeuvre which might add a few little points to Lula's image [before the elections in October]."

Mr Pontes's mission into space was seen as important for a country still recovering from the 2003 Alcantara disaster, when 21 people died following a rocket explosion in Brazil's space centre in the north-east of the country. "To carry our flag [into space] represents so much for the future and the past [of Brazil]," he said, during a press conference transmitted from the space station last week.

Even President Lula weighed in to defend the astronaut on Wednesday.

"There are people who complain that we are spending money," he told Mr Pontes through a live video link. "[But] what we are spending is small, considering what this could represent for Brazilian space politics."

And the controversy didn't end there. Within minutes of Mr Pontes's return, the debate was raging in Brazil about the best actor to take on the role of the country's first man in space. On one newspaper website, Richard Gere led the polls, closely followed by Bruce Willis, praised for "his acting capacity and his experience in the film Armageddon".

Brazil's first astronaut elevated to superhero status after 9-day voyage - Monday, April 10, 2006 -

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