Acrobat Space Tourist Rockets Into Orbit
The Soyuz TMA-16 rocket launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, carrying Canadian space tourist Guy Laliberte and professional spaceflyers Jeff Williams and Maxim Suraev.
Credit: NASA TV

This story was updated at 3:35 a.m. EDT.

A Canadian space tourist and two professional spaceflyers rocketed toward the International Space Station Wednesday.

The crew rode on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft that lifted off from Kazakhstan's Baikonur Cosmodrome at 3:14 a.m. EDT (0714 GMT).

Guy Laliberte, an acrobat and founder of the world-famous circus troupe Cirque du Soleil, is making a 12 day visit to space. The billionaire performer is devoting his mission to communicating water conservation issues. He plans to stage a poetic performance about water from space on Oct. 9, while artists in 14 cities around the world take part in the performance through a simultaneous broadcast.

"Guy said he's very happy," Soyuz commander Maxim Suraev, a Russian cosmonaut, radioed from the capsule shortly after liftoff. "Everything is nominal onboard the Soyuz."

Fairy tales come true

Laliberte said traveling to space has always been a fairy tale dream for him, and he hopes to send the message that fairy tales can come true.

"The one thing I know is human people, children, young kids, need inspiration to shape their future, to build their character," Laliberte said Tuesday during a press conference. "And we have the responsibility as adults to do everything in our power to inspire them."

Laliberte reportedly paid about $35 million to the Russian Federal Space Agency for his seat aboard the Soyuz. The deal was brokered by U.S firm Space Adventures, which has arranged seven previous Soyuz tourist flights.

"We're very excited about Guy's flight," Space Adventures CEO Eric Anderson told SPACE.com Tuesday. "He's the first performing artist in space. He's going to be able to communicate what the magic of spaceflight is, and he's dedicated his mission to highlighting the fact that we need to take care of the water we have on this planet, which I think is an important cause."

New station crew

Also flying into space today are two career spaceflyers - veteran NASA astronaut Jeff Williams and Suraev, a rookie spaceflyer - set to begin long-term stints on the International Space Station (ISS). Both will begin as Expedition 21 flight engineers; then in December Williams is scheduled to take over as commander of Expedition 22.

Their mission will be a busy one, overlapping with two visiting space shuttle flights, another Soyuz launch, and the arrival of numerous unmanned cargo spacecraft to the orbiting laboratory. Expedition 21 is only the second six-person crew to work on the space station - previous crews had only three members.

Williams and Suraev are set to dock at the space station Friday at 4:37 a.m. EDT (0837 GMT). They will join four other Expedition 21 crewmembers already onboard - Belgian astronaut Frank De Winne, Canadian Space Agency astronaut Robert Thirsk, Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko, and NASA astronaut Nicole Stott. The new arrivals will also briefly overlap with Expedition 20 cosmonaut commander Gennady Padalka and NASA flight engineer Michael Barratt, who are set to fly back to Earth with Laliberte Oct. 11.

"I spoke with the crew on orbit - I know they're very excited," said Mike Suffredini, NASA's space station program manager, during a Tuesday briefing. "They're looking forward to seeing you. ISS is ready to accept you gentleman. Good luck and Godspeed."

When the new visitors arrive on their Soyuz, it will mark the first time that three of the Russian spacecraft are simultaneously docked at the station. The total will drop down again to two when the space tourist and two out-coming station crewmembers fly home next week.

Busy mission

Between research and station upkeep, the new crewmembers will have their hands full once they arrive at the crowded outpost.

"We always perform experiments," Suraev said Tuesday. "For our increment alone, we have about 50 experiments planned. We also have maintenance and repairs in case equipment has failed."

Indeed, current crews aboard the station will be spending more of their time than ever before on research, now that there are so many hands on deck to help with daily tasks and the bulk of the work building the station is already done.

"This is a transition between the assembly of the space station and transitioning into the full utilization of the space station as this international orbiting laboratory," Williams said.

It won't be all work and no play, though. For his part, Laliberte plans to use his status as space clown to lighten the mood in orbit. He is toting along a signature red clown nose to wear, and has also threatened to tickle his crewmates and stage practical jokes.

"I'm going there with my sense of humor, my belief that even if some times in life we have to do hard work and serious work, there's always a little space to keep humor present somewhere in daily life," he said.

Williams and Suraev are set to return to Earth in March 2010.

SPACE.com is providing full coverage of the launch of Laliberte and the Expedition 21 crew with Staff Writer Clara Moskowitz in New York. Click here for mission updates and live mission coverage.

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