Billionaire Clown Lands After Space Mission
Spaceflight participant Guy Laliberte is pictured in the Unity node of the International Space Station Oct. 5.
Credit: NASA

This story was updated at 12:32 a.m. EDT.

The first clown in space landed safely on Earth early Sunday, capping off 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. EDT (1632 GMT) after an 11-day space jaunt. He rode in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft along with two professional spaceflyers 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. EDT (2206 GMT) and undocked at 9:07 p.m. EDT (0107 GMT Sunday), after saying farewell to their crewmates still onboard the station.

"Goodbye station," said departing Expedition 20 commander Gennady Padalka, a Russian cosmonaut.

Laliberte wore his trademark red clown nose as he hugged the station residents goodbye.

"I would like to express my gratefulness to all my crewmates," Padalka said during a change-of-command ceremony before he left the station. "Without my crewmates I would be nothing as commander."

Rookie spaceflyer Mike Barratt is also making the trip home.

"For a first flight I'm probably one of the luckiest astronauts," Barratt said. "My first flight was incredible."

Space clown

Laliberte called his trip the "Poetic Social Mission" and dedicated himself to advocating for water. The issue is close to his heart - he founded the non-profit 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. Co-performers included former United States Vice President Al Gore, actor Matthew McConaughey, singers Peter Gabriel, Shakira and Joss Stone, actress Salma Hayek, and the band U2.

Cirque du Soleil members performed an acrobatic routine in Montreal, Canada and Las Vegas, and in South Africa the a cappella choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo sang. Rappers performed in Marrakech, Morocco, and in New York, people in the middle of Times Square appeared to spontaneously join in a choreographed dance.

"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, but 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

Padalka and Barrat are completing a long-duration tour of duty on the orbiting laboratory, where Padalka served as commander of the Expedition 20 mission. On Friday he 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."

Barratt, a first-time spaceflyer, 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.

SPACE.com is providing full coverage Laliberte's fight and the Expedition 20 landing with Staff Writer Clara Moskowitz in New York. Click here for mission updates and live mission coverage.

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