Image: Guy Laliberte, Maxim Suraev, Jeffrey Williams
Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Cente
Attired in their Russian launch and entry suits, space tourist Guy Laliberte, left, Russian cosmonaut Maxim Suraev, center, and NASA astronaut Jeffrey Williams take a break from training in Star City, Russia, to pose for a portrait.
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updated 10/1/2009 5:26:27 PM ET 2009-10-01T21:26:27

A Canadian space tourist and two career astronauts are en route to the International Space Station.

The trio is due to dock at the orbital outpost at 4:37 a.m. EDT, where paying passenger Guy Laliberte — founder of circus troupe Cirque du Soleil — will spend about 10 days. His two crewmates, NASA astronaut Jeffrey Williams and Russian cosmonaut Maxim Suraev, are set to join the station crew for a six-month stay.

Laliberte, Williams and Suraev blasted off on their Russian-built Soyuz TMA-16 spacecraft Wednesday from the Central Asian spaceport of Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

"The Soyuz is very small — it's as if you're triplets in a womb," Williams said Tuesday before liftoff.

After arriving, crews on both the Soyuz and the space station will work to seal the link between their vehicles before opening the hatches at about 7:40 a.m. EDT. The new arrivals will be met by current station commander Gennady Padalka, a cosmonaut, along with Belgian astronaut Frank De Winne, Canadian Space Agency astronaut Robert Thirsk, Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko, and NASA astronauts Nicole Stott and Michael Barratt.

The Soyuz-TMA-16's arrival Wednesday will mark the first time three Soyuz spacecraft have been simultaneously docked at the orbiting laboratory.

Poetic social mission
Laliberte plans to spend his time in space publicizing water conservation issues.

In addition to his career as an acrobat, Laliberte is the founder of ONE DROP, a non-profit organization dedicated to fighting world poverty through working to provide global access to clean water. The highlight of his space voyage will be an Oct. 9 performance, where Laliberte will recite a poetic story about water, with help from artists and personalities webcasting along with him from 14 cities around the world.

"When I founded ONE DROP, it was (or rather, it still is) desperately urgent to do something to protect water," Laliberte wrote before launch on his blog at OneDrop.org. "ONE DROP is already acting in practical terms, but in the project of going into space, I saw an innovative opportunity, reflecting the image of Cirque du Soleil and my own image, too."

NASA's 10 greatest science missions Laliberte hopes the event, which will include appearances by Al Gore, Shakira, U2, Peter Gabriel and more, will spread the word about water in a creative way. It is also the first big artistic event to be performed live from space.

Laliberte's spaceflight, which he calls the "Poetic Social Mission," isn't purely altruistic.

"Of course, it is thanks to my own financial situation that I have been able to experience such an adventure," he wrote. "And yes, I am also making a personal dream come true through this mission."

The project won't leave too much time for goofing around, but Laliberte said he plans to squeeze in some fun, including tickle-fests with his crewmates and passing out a red clown nose to everyone onboard to wear.

"I'm very excited about this journey I'm undertaking and everyone I'm meeting through it," he wrote. "This is both a personal challenge, as everything I'm experiencing here is new to me, and a grand project that will benefit my ONE DROP Foundation as well as Cirque du Soleil."

New expedition
Soon after Williams and Suraev arrive on the space station they will take part in a transition ceremony to mark the beginning of the ISS Expedition 21 mission. It will be the second station increment with a six-person crew, doubled from the previous crew complement of three.

"Now we're a much bigger team with six on board," Williams said in a preflight interview. "I'm looking forward to the challenge of six-crew operations."

Williams has been to the space station twice on previous missions. The orbiting laboratory will be about the double the size it was the last time he saw it, he said, and is now almost completely assembled.

"It's not over when we complete it," Williams said. "When we complete it, we need to utilize it. My hope is that we get the full utilization out of this magnificent technical accomplishment."

Indeed, the Expedition 21 crew plans a challenging full slate of scientific research to take advantage of the orbiting lab facilities.

During the busy mission, the resident spaceflyers will host two visiting space shuttle missions, one more Soyuz flight, and a handful of unmanned cargo craft arrivals. Among the new supplies and equipment to be delivered on these flights is a new node module named Tranquility, which will include a panoramic window called the Cupola.

The Soyuz-TMA-16's arrival Wednesday will mark the first time three Soyuz spacecraft have been simultaneously docked at the ISS.

The expedition will also include a spacewalk, or extravehicular activity (EVA) in NASA parlance, in which rookie flyer Suraev will take part.

"I do have just one EVA during my mission," he said in a preflight interview. "On the personal side, I'm really looking forward to the EVA. And as a professional, I really want to not make mistakes during my flight."

Guy Laliberte is chronicling his Poetic Social Mission using Twitter ("ONEDROPdotorg"), Facebook and the Web site: OneDrop.org.

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