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Cirque du Soleil Founder Flies Into Space and Returns With Gaia

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Gaia cover

"Why did you want to go into space?" was the first question that I asked of the remarkable 51-year old man, Guy Laliberté, whom I met one-on-one Monday afternoon. He laughed and replied, "When I was ten years old, I remember being in summer camp and watching on TV astronaut Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. My overriding ambition all my life has been to travel the world. This particular journey began in 2000, when I had dinner with Julie Payette, a Canadian astronaut, and she told me about the private company, Space Adventures, which was becoming the broker for seats. Six months later the first private person went up in space. [Ed. Note: Dennis Tito, for $20 million.] I finally contacted them in 2004, when I knew I could afford it and my business was okay, but when they finally said they had a seat for me in 2007 I could not go for family reasons. One day in 2009, in the midst of several hundred emails, I received one saying they had a seat open in September 2009, six months from then. It was the 25th anniversary of Cirque du Soleil and I was consumed with... stuff, so I told myself it was impossible."

Guy Laliberte, founder of Cirque and space traveler

Guy Laliberte, Founder of Cirque du Soleil and Space Traveler!

He interrupted his dialogue for a greeting to the charming woman, René, who was his personal publicist, and then continued. "That night, I was in great emotional distress. I was on my boat with my girlfriend, and could not sleep thinking about this moment. [He made an aside to me that he usually never has trouble sleeping.] I smoked a cigarette, watched a movie, and I realized that I needed a real challenge in my life. At sunrise, it hit me in the face. I said, 'What are you doing? Of course you can do it. I contacted them and they said I had to make an immediate decision, and I said yes."

Guy went on to tell me about his six months of rigorous training in a Soviet space camp, complete with spinning chair which made him sick. But he finished the course and passed the physical. "Because I knew the headlines would read, 'First Clown in Space,' I decided I needed a larger purpose." We were interrupted by a party of people arriving for the book party for Gaia, the new tome which Guy has curated. But then we went off to a corner and he continued, "I decided to dedicate my personal spaceflight to raise awareness about water issues facing humankind." He noticed my skeptical grimace and heard me whisper a comment about being pretentious and he cracked up, continuing, "Let's just say it became the first poetic social mission in space."

We continued our talk, but let me first tell you a bit about this man. Guy Laliberté is the founder of Cirque du Soleil, which my Huffington Post readers may remember was the subject of my last week's article about their forthcoming Hollywood show, Iris. I researched his background and learned he was born in Québec City, Canada in 1959. An accordionist like his father, he was also a stilt-walker and fire-eater! (The first and only fire-eater I have ever interviewed!) He and a small group of colleagues, street performers of the Fête foraine de Baie-Saint-Pail, joined in orchestrating the marriage of cultures from the artistic and acrobat worlds which has become the hallmark of Cirque du Soleil. He did tell me that since 1984 he has guided the creative team through the creation of every show. As I recently reported, today they are an international operation of 5,000 people in 40 countries on six continents, with more than 100 million viewers.

But I was intrigued by a man who would spend 11 days in a space station 220 miles above the earth... and return with 10,000 photographs which he has now culled down to 150 breathtaking pictures and assembled in this new book, Gaia, published by the prestigious Assouline company. (Their publicist, Mimi Grume Sterling, told me that the book is not available on Amazon, so you can get a copy at any of their boutiques or online at www.assouline.com).

"The pictures in my book show the colors and textures of 40 countries, while we were traveling at 17,500 miles an hour making 16 tours of the earth every day. We orbited the earth 176 times on this journey." Since I am something of a camera nut, I asked him what he used, and he showed me his Nikon D3S and Nikon D3X digital-SLR cameras, while I demonstrated my amazing new Canon Powershot S95 as I snapped his photo for this article.

I spent this past weekend pouring over the 300 pages of photographs and text in this book, amazed at the images in which deserts resemble contemporary abstract paintings, cities rise up like mountain ranges, and faces and figures are revealed in nature. I was intrigued by the fact that publisher Assouline had introduced adjacent bilingual text (both French and English) in three unique formats, and -- for purposes of full disclosure -- I was given a copy before this interview. Equally intriguing to me was the accompanying text, which features about a hundred moving quotes from many sources about our fragile earth and life. I asked him about the title, Gaia, which I already knew meant 'Mother Earth' to our ancestors. "The word Gaia has always had a special meaning to me," he replied. "It also happens to be part of my eldest daughter's first name." The publisher's rep later told me that proceeds from the book sales go to One Drop, a non-profit organization initiated by Laliberté in 2007 to fight poverty worldwide by ensuring that everyone across the planet has access to clean water now and in the future. I was properly apologetic for thinking him pretentious.

I asked him if he had felt any fear, and he referred me to a paragraph in his introduction to the book. "Ironically, the opportunity to go into space brings you back down to earth big time! My decision must also take into account my children, my family and my friends. I must be at peace with this decision. And I was. I weighed the risks without letting fear feed on fear. There is no room for fear in my life." In researching this article about the wealthy ($2.5 billion) clown/philanthropist/poker player/adventurer, I read his first-person account of the preparation for the space trip in Forbes Magazine. He spent $35 million on his ticket. His account of the lift-off, the 11 days shooting pictures through a little window in the craft, and then the harrowing return to earth is gripping.

One humorous side note is that he told me the surprise of the trip was the nice culinary experience. "The Russian food in training was awful, looked like dog food, but on the ISS there was an international six nation crew and we had some delicious food... each astronaut got to bring a bonus food container, food they liked personally, and at dinner we actually had foie gras, sausages, pickles, Japanese and French things."

"The landing was 30 minutes of pure adrenaline. The plasma sparks around the window as the temperature rises to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. You can feel the heat. When the parachutes open you feel shaking and spinning. There is no soft landing. Basically you are going through a car crash... As soon as I hit the ground I wanted to go back up there and do the ride again." He was the 511th person to travel into space.

I ended the interview with a question which has preoccupied me since I read the book. "Do you believe in God?" For the first time, I think I stopped him in his tracks. He finally spoke: "No, I am an atheist. I was born a Catholic, but after I had traveled to Northern Ireland with some Catholic friends and we had a horrible experience with the English Protestant police, I lost all taste for formal religion." I commented that I think of myself as a Zen Juddist and he smiled and said, "Of all the religions, I am most partial to Buddhism." As we parted (I caught him between a CNN and a Fox News interview), I gave him a DVD of a movie I had produced on the life of W.C. Fields, and he said that Fields was his idol, a world-class juggler who became the most famous clown of his time. I said to Guy (pronounced Gee), that I would like to make a film about his amazing life, and he laughed again and said, "My biograhy is coming out soon. We'll see after that. I still have a lot of life to live."