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Backup for space billionaire

Space Adventures
Esther Dyson plays with water blobs during a zero-gravity airplane ride.

For more than a decade, high-tech investor Esther Dyson has been a believer in business ventures that draw upon Russia's intellectual resources. And as the daughter of physicist and spaceship designer Freeman Dyson, she has had a special interest in ventures on the space frontier. Now she's putting more of her money where her convictions are, by paying $3 million to go through cosmonaut training in Russia as a backup for billionaire spaceflier Charles Simonyi.

"At least I know Russian, which will spare me some drill! And at the end of the six months, my Russian should be pretty good," Dyson told me today in an e-mail.

Dyson will be spending much of the next six months brushing up on her Russian and learning the ropes for a flight to the international space station aboard a Soyuz craft, just in case Simonyi is unable to blast off next spring. The backup slot was arranged by Virginia-based Space Adventures - which also brokered the deal for Simonyi's first spaceflight in 2007.

Space Adventures has handled the arrangements for all five deep-pocketed travellers who have paid their own way to the space station, starting in 2001. The company's sixth client, millionaire game developer Richard Garriott, is due to blast into space from Russia's Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan this weekend - and Dyson will be watching.

Dyson, who is an investor in Space Adventures, said she had been thinking about going through cosmonaut training for a long time. "I got my first medical back in May, well before Charles decided to go again," she told me.

"I know Charles and was there in Moscow [and] Kazakhstan to see him launch last spring; it will be a pleasure to train with him - though I suspect he won't need that much time to refresh," she said.

Space Adventures' president and chief executive officer, Eric Anderson, said in today's news release that Dyson would be certified as a "fully trained cosmonaut" when she finishes the program next March, and would be named to an official space mission crew.

"This is a distinction that less than 1,000 people have ever had," Anderson said. "We look forward to the day when she launches to space herself."

Dyson, 57, weighs her chances of actually having to take 60-year-old Simonyi's place this time around at about 5 percent. If that scenario plays out, she says she'd have to "scrounge up some extra cash" to buy her round-trip ticket to space. (The going rate is reportedly $35 million.)

You can keep track of Dyson's progress via her Weblog at Huffington Post.

Full disclosure: I've been crossing paths with Esther Dyson for about 15 years, and one of our first meetings was at a dinner party hosted by Charles Simonyi. Last year, I took some time off from msnbc.com to help prepare a briefing book for Simonyi's 2007 spaceflight.