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!"