The first clown in space landed safely on Earth on Sunday, capping a mission to spread awareness about water conservation.
Guy Laliberte, a Canadian billionaire and founder of the circus troupe Cirque du Soleil, touched down on the steppes of Kazakhstan at 12:32 a.m. ET after an 11-day space jaunt. He rode in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft along with two professional spacefliers returning from six-month stays aboard the International Space Station.
The trio closed the hatches between their Soyuz TMA-14 and the orbiting laboratory at 6:06 p.m. ET and undocked at 9:07 p.m. ET after saying farewell to their crewmates still onboard the station.
"Goodbye, station," said departing Expedition 20 commander Gennady Padalka, a Russian cosmonaut.
"I would like to express my gratefulness to all my crewmates," Padalka said during a change-of-command ceremony. "Without my crewmates I would be nothing as commander."
Rookie spaceflier Mike Barratt also made the trip home.
"For a first flight, I'm probably one of the luckiest astronauts," Barratt said. "My first flight was incredible."
Laliberte wore his trademark clown nose as he hugged the station residents goodbye — and was also seen wearing it after he was helped out of the Soyuz capsule in Kazakhstan.
Billionaire hosts global performance
Laliberte called his trip the "Poetic Social Mission" and dedicated himself to advocating water conservation. The issue is close to his heart — he founded the nonprofit One Drop Foundation to combat world poverty through global access to clean water.
Laliberte's mission culminated in a performance he hosted Friday night from space, in which artists in 14 cities around the world used acrobatics, dance, song and poetry to celebrate water. Performers included former Vice President Al Gore, actor Matthew McConaughey, singers Peter Gabriel, Shakira and Joss Stone, actress Salma Hayek, and the band U2.
"I am an artist, not a scientist, and that is the only way I can make a significant contribution to a mission," Laliberte said during the event. "I decided to use this privilege to raise awareness for the water issue."
Laliberte paid more than $35 million to the Russian Federal Space Agency (through the U.S. firm Space Adventures) for the trip, and said the experience was worth every penny.
"What I've been experiencing here has been an amazing journey," he said. "This was a moment to create awareness toward the situation of water in the world. I don't have 25 years, the world don't have 25 years to address the situation of water. I think this was a great opportunity to combine to a personal dream also."
Space veterans return
For Padalka and Barratt, the landing marked the end of a six-month tour of duty in space. On Friday, Padalka handed control of the station over to European Space Agency astronaut Frank De Winne of Belgium, who became the first European station commander.
"Our mission was very, very long and very productive, and I would say very eventful," Padalka said Tuesday via radio link from the station. "Right now we are ready to go home, and I hope that the space station will be left in a great position for the next commander and the next crew."
Slideshow: Month in Space Barratt, a first-time spaceflier, was an Expedition 20 flight engineer. Waiting for him at home are his wife and five children.
"I have a big family and that's the strongest magnet on the planet," Barratt said Monday. "I need to get home to them. But at the same time I'm going to be truly sad to leave this place. This crew up here has become a second family."
Barratt won't have much time to rest once he gets home. While in space, he was assigned to fly on the last scheduled space shuttle mission, the STS-133 flight of Discovery slated for September 2010. He plans to begin training for that mission soon after returning to Earth.
"It's been a long time since I've trained on shuttle, so as soon as I land, I'm going to hit the books," Barratt said.
Padalka and Barratt were part of the space station's first-ever six-person crew, doubled from the previous teams of three.
"The main goal of our mission was six-person crew," Padalka said. The expanded population helps keep the station running smoothly and allows astronauts to take on more science research work.
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