KOROLYOV, Russia — A Canadian circus billionaire boarded the International Space Station on Friday after a smooth ride up from Earth, and promptly played the entertainer by donning a red clown nose for a camera.
Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberte became the seventh paying space passenger to travel to the station, where he plans to mix clownish fun with a serious message about the growing shortage of clean water on the planet 220 miles (355 kilometers) below.
Laliberte floated onto the orbiting outpost along with American astronaut Jeffrey Williams and Russian cosmonaut Maxim Surayev two days after the three had launched in Soyuz craft from the Kazakh steppe.
Laliberte returns to Earth on Oct. 11, while Williams and Surayev will live on the station for nearly six months.
“I’m adapting pretty good. I love that thing — but I ain’t staying six months,” Laliberte said in a video linkup to Russian Mission Control outside Moscow, where his five children and partner Claudia Barilla watched the Soyuz TMA-16 docking on a big screen.
He chatted with his children in French — “Allo, Papou,” a son said; “Je t’aime, Papou,” said a daughter. He put on a red clown nose and wagged an index finger at his audience, stealing the show as he crowded in with the space station’s eight other occupants in zero gravity.
Laliberte also asked one of his children why she wasn’t wearing a clown nose, and she said she had forgotten it.
“We were happy he didn’t get space sick,” Barilla told The Associated Press while cuddling their 2-year-old daughter.
An experienced acrobat, fire-eater and stilt-walker, Laliberte also had put on a clown nose before Wednesday’s launch, and brought several to the station for crew mates to try on. He warned he would tickle them while they sleep.
Focusing attention on water
The serious side of Laliberte's mission has to do with water conservation. He plans to read a poem dedicated to water and its importance in a satellite linkup to be shown in 14 cities next Friday. Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, pop singer Peter Gabriel and Irish rock group U2 also will participate in the webcast event.
Slideshow: Month in Space Quebec-born Laliberte, 50, is worth an estimated $2.5 billion. The former street performer holds a 95 percent stake in Cirque du Soleil, which he founded 25 years ago. He paid an estimated $35 million for his 12-day space trip.
On his return to Earth, he will accompany two of the station’s current crew members aboard one of three Soyuz crafts now docked at the station.
Third-time space traveler Williams, 51, and first-timer Surayev, 37, will be in orbit for 169 days.
“We are really proud of him,” said Surayev’s wife, Anna, who watched the docking along with their two daughters. “Glad his dream came true, because it took him 12 years to achieve it.”
The future for millionaire fliers
Laliberte may be one of the the last private-sector orbital space passengers, if not the last, for several years. NASA is planning to retire its shuttle fleet next year and rely on Russia to ferry U.S. astronauts to the station — and that means fewer extra seats on the delivery craft.
Russian space agency chief Anatoly Perminov said Friday that Russia will be unable to send tourists to the station if the United States does not continue its shuttle flights.
Laliberte's trip, like the other privately paid-for visits to the space station, was brokered by Virginia-based Space Adventures. The company's president and chief executive officer, Eric Anderson, told msnbc.com that Space Adventures was "in this business for the long term."
"We are always working to increase access to space for private citizens, including to the space station in the next few years," he said.
Anderson pointed out that it was not yet certain whether the shuttle fleet would actually be retired next year. And as a backup plan, Space Adventures is looking into alternate means of reaching the space station — for example, via the rocket delivery system currently being developed by California-based SpaceX.
In addition, Anderson said, "we're talking to the Russians about additional Soyuz missions" that would be fully paid for privately.
For all these reasons, Anderson said he couldn't yet predict how many space station flights would be available for future space passengers. "I guess the realistic answer is, we're just going to have to wait and see," he said.
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