BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan — Canadian circus tycoon Guy Laliberte turned space into his big top Wednesday, boarding a Russian rocket and lifting off on a mission that mixes a serious message on water shortages with some clowning around in the cosmos.
Laliberte, an experienced fire-eater and stilt-walker who founded Cirque du Soleil, joined Russian cosmonaut Maxim Surayev and American astronaut Jeffrey Williams aboard a Soyuz craft that soared off the Kazakh steppe and set a course for the International Space Station.
The billionaire who calls himself the first clown in space paid a reported $35 million for his nine-day stay at the station, where he plans to publicize the world's growing shortage of clean water. His space extravaganza will culminate in a satellite linkup with shows in 14 cities across five continents featuring rock band U2 and Colombian pop star Shakira, as well as an appearance by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore.
With a puff of white smoke, the Soyuz craft carrying Laliberte and his crew mates shed its first rocket stage minutes after liftoff from the Baikonur launch facility and then disappeared from view.
Laliberte's friends and family on the ground waited anxiously and then burst into cheers when an announcement that the ship had reached orbit blared over a loudspeaker. There were ecstatic hugs, sobs of relief and chants of "Guy! Guy!"
They then broke into an impromptu rendition of Elton John's "Rocket Man."
"I'm very happy for him. It's amazing," said Laliberte's partner, former model Claudia Barilla, tears streaming down her face as she cradled their youngest son. "Now we know he's up there."
She wore a yellow clown nose as she watched the launch. Laliberte had donned a bulbous red nose before the launch and said he was taking nine of the novelty noses to the station for other occupants to wear. He has also mischievously warned he will tickle them in their sleep.
Also among the spectators was Quebec pop star Garou, a friend of Laliberte's.
"I feel a lot more mesmerized than I ever thought I would be," Garou said after the launch. "Having your friend rising up that fast and that impressively is beyond what I expected."
An acrobat, fire-breather, philanthropist and a keen gambler, 50-year old Laliberte plans to use his trip to publicize the world's shortage of clean water by holding a global artistic performance organized by his One Drop Foundation. The Quebec-born entrepreneur is worth an estimated $2.5 billion and holds a 95 percent stake in Cirque du Soleil, which he founded 25 years ago.
The Soyuz TMA-16 is scheduled to arrive Friday at the International Space Station, orbiting 220 miles (355 kilometers) above Earth. Laliberte is to return to Earth on Oct. 11.
His enthusiasm seemed to infect others ahead of the launch. As the crew members climbed up the ladder into the capsule, Surayev began singing the pop song "Mammy Blue," and Laliberte and Williams joined him.
Surayev, 37, and Wisconsin native Williams, 51, plan to stay in orbit for 169 days. Williams is on his third space mission and recently became a grandfather.
"I'm glad he's up there – that's what he wanted to do," said the astronaut's wife, Anna-Marie. "Now all the training is behind us and he will just go up and do the mission."
Surayev, a first-time space traveler, hung a plush toy lion in front of him at the Soyuz's control panel to signal the beginning of weightlessness. He said his preteen daughters had kept the toy under their pillows to "make sure that the lion smells of home for the next six months."
"We were worried, because this has been a tough road – 12 years of hard training," his wife, Anya, said at Baikonur. "But we are pleased, happy and proud that the liftoff went off without a hitch."
The Soyuz team is scheduled to help continue construction of the space station, where in-orbit work began in 1998. Recent missions have expanded the station's capacity to allow six inhabitants, though Surayev and Williams will be alone for about three weeks at year's end after the current occupants leave.
One major addition planned during their stay is the installation of a window module, dubbed the cupola, which will give occupants a direct view of robotic operations outside the station.
Six shuttle flights remain to wrap up construction on the station – now Earth's largest artificial satellite, weighing more than 710,000 pounds (322,000 kilograms). The station has cost more than $100 billion, paid by the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan and the 18-nation European Space Agency.
Laliberte is the seventh paying space tourist to travel to the station and may be one of its last private visitors for several years, as NASA retires its shuttle program and turns to the Russian space agency to ferry U.S. astronauts to the lab.
Space Adventures, which organized the private visits, still aims to make sure more tourists get to visit the space station in the coming years, CEO Eric Anderson said, suggesting that possibly the number of Russian Soyuz missions could be increased.
"I keep hearing that space tourism is ending and it never seems to be true," Anderson told The Associated Press.