Cirque founder launches into space

Guy Laliberté, founder of Cirque du Soleil, became Canada's first space tourist early Wednesday when he blasted off for the International Space Station aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule.
The Russian Soyuz TMA-16 spacecraft carrying the crew of Canadian billionaire Guy Laliberté, Russian cosmonaut Maxim Surayev and U.S. astronaut Jeffrey Williams blasts off from Baikonur cosmodrome on Wednesday. ((Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters))
Guy Laliberté, founder of Cirque du Soleil, became Canada's first space tourist early Wednesday when he blasted off for the International Space Station aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule.

The 50-year-old Canadian creator of the famed circus troupe paid $35 million US to accompany cosmonaut Maxim Surayev and astronaut Jeffrey Williams on the two-day  journey to the space station.

The Soyuz capsule shed its rocket stages and entered orbit minutes after shooting up from the Baikonur launch facility.

The Soyuz spacecraft is scheduled to dock at the International Space Station on Oct. 2, where Laliberté, Surayev and Williams will be welcomed by Canadian astronaut Bob Thirsk, who is on a six-month visit, and five other astronauts.

Family and friends on the ground chanted "Guy! Guy!" and sang Rocket Man as it was announced the ship had reached orbit.

"I'm very happy for him. It's amazing," Laliberté's partner, former model Claudia Barilla, tearfully told The Associated Press while she still wore a yellow clown nose.

"I feel a lot more mesmerized than I ever thought I would be," Quebec singing star Garou said after the launch. "Having your friend rising up that fast and that impressively is beyond what I expected."

Guy Laliberté, best known as the founder of Cirque du Soleil and one of Canada’s richest men, was born in Quebec City to a middle-class family.

Laliberté says he always knew that his life was bound for the stage. His passion for performing and his love of travelling took him to Europe where he worked as a street performer. Although it didn't pay well, Laliberté says the experience was rewarding, because that’s where he met other street performers and learned how to fire breathe, juggle, walk on stilts and perform magic tricks.

In 1984 he signed a contract with the government of Quebec to stage a street show in celebration of the province's 375th anniversary: Cirque du Soleil was born. Today more than 50 million people across the globe have seen Cirque du Soleil shows.

In 2007, the Canadian entrepreneur also founded the One Drop foundation, which aims to fight poverty by providing access to safe water.

Laliberté gave the cabin's in-flight camera a double thumbs-up just minutes into the flight and told ground control he felt "super."

Footage from the capsule showed Surayev and Williams strapped in, operating controls and waving occasionally for the camera. Laliberté has a seat on the right-hand side of the cabin, next to a small porthole.

A mission control official communicating with the astronauts said they are all in excellent spirits.

Laliberté said before liftoff that he had packed a collection of clown noses to give to the astronauts on the space station.

"I promise I will plant as much as possible nose clowns in space," he said. "So it will be not only brilliant stars but colourful stars in the future."

Laliberté and his two fellow astronauts were cheered by supporters wearing red clown noses during pre-launch preparations.

As the trio climbed into their capsule on the launch pad, they sang the pop song Mammy Blue.

Laliberté, who is now the seventh private citizen to blast into space, hopes his 12-day stay aboard the station will help raise awareness of drinking-water problems around the world when he hosts the first multimedia event from the station on Oct. 9 to highlight that crisis. 

The two-hour show, called "Moving Stars and Earth for Water," will feature former U.S. vice-president Al Gore, and musicians including rock band U2. It is to be carried live on the website

'The first clown in space'

"I’m not a scientist, I’m not a doctor like the other participants. I’m not a professional. So I’m really the first clown in space," he told CBC News earlier. "So it's important they understand that. But they also understand that the guy behind the nose of a clown is the chief of the Cirque du Soleil. That I have a mission in regard to humanitarian cause."

Guy Laliberté jokes after putting on his space suit on Wednesday. ((Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters))
Earlier this month, Laliberté told reporters he will try to lighten things up on the orbiting station.

"I'm a person with a pretty high spirit, who's there to crack jokes and make jokes to those guys and while they're sleeping, you know, I'll be tickling them," Laliberté said.

Laliberté has been in quarantine for the last two weeks getting ready. To prepare for the trip, he worked out for several hours a day, losing more than 25 pounds. He has spent the last five months biking, studying and preparing for the weightlessness of space.

Canadian support

Replaying the launch hours later at the headquarters of the Canadian Space Agency in St-Hubert, Que., agency president Steve MacLean said Laliberté's thumbs-up was an impressive sight.

"If you are in a situation where you have to focus just to stay together, you won't be able to move. He had it all together. I was happy when I saw that," said MacLean.

"I told Guy this: Just the weightlessness is worth your $35 million. And that's before you look at the Earth and the universe."

A former astronaut himself, MacLean said even though Laliberté is a private citizen, he merit's the agency's support.

MacLean said his 'Poetic Social Mission' is a chance for the agency to draw attention to aspects of its work that are seldom in the public eye.
Canadian Space Agency president Steve MacLean said Laliberté's mission will help draw attention to the agency's work on water issues. ((Kai Nagata/CBC))

He said the agency has been using its satellites to research water issues for two decades in parched Morocco; on the flood plains of the Mekong Delta and tracking pollution on the Great Lakes.

 ''When Guy came here and said he's going to put $100 million into a water foundation, I felt that even though we're from different backgrounds, different situations — that's a common goal," said MacLean.

MacLean said the money Laliberté is spending is also helping to pay for the work of the Russian space agency. And, he said the Russians are disappointed there is no more room for tourists in the forseeable future.

The Quebec-born businessman is expected to be the last private paying tourist to visit the station for some time, as NASA mothballs its space shuttle fleet and the U.S. space agency relies on Soyuz craft to get back and forth to the space station.

Laliberté is scheduled to return to Earth on Oct. 11. Williams, a two-time space traveller who recently became a grandfather, and Surayev plan to stay in orbit for 169 days and are scheduled to help continue construction of the space station, where in-orbit work began in 1998.

With files from The Canadian Press and The Associated Press