Billionaire clown heads for space station

BAIKONUR: A Canadian circus tycoon, an American astronaut and a Russian cosmonaut blasted off in a spacecraft from the Kazakh steppe Wednesday on a journey to the International Space Station.

Minutes after lifting off from the Baikonur launch facility, the Soyuz capsule shed its rocket stages and entered orbit. On board were Cirque du Soleil founder and space tourist Guy Laliberte along with crew members Jeffrey Williams and Maxim Surayev.

Friends and family on the ground cheered and hugged one another when an announcement that the ship was in orbit came over the loudspeaker. They chanted “Guy! Guy!” and broke out singing Elton John’s “Rocket Man.”

Laliberte, dubbed the first clown in space, had donned a bulbous red nose and blew kisses to supporters before the launch. He has paid $35 million for the trip he plans to use to publicize the world’s growing shortage of clean water.

“I’m very happy for him. It’s amazing,” said Laliberte’s partner, former model Claudia Barilla, tears streaming down her face as she cradled her young son in her arms. “Now we know he’s up there.” She wore a yellow clown nose as she watched the launch. Laliberte brought several clown noses for crew mates aboard the station and has impishly warned he would tickle them while they slept.

Footage of the

capsule showed crew members Williams and Surayev strapped in, operating the controls and occasionally waving for the camera.

A mission control official communicating

with the astronauts said they were in excellent spirits, and a NASA TV announcer said they were “safely in orbit.”

“We were worried, because this has been a tough road - 12 years of hard training,” first-time space traveler Surayev’s wife, Anya, said at Baikonur.

“But we are pleased, happy and proud that

the liftoff went off

without a hitch.”

The Soyuz TMA-16 craft is scheduled to arrive Friday at the International Space Station, orbiting 220 miles (355 kilometers) above Earth.

Laliberte - who rose from being a street performer to founding the circus arts and theater company Cirque Du Soleil 25 years ago - is to return to Earth after 12 days. The 50-year-old is worth an estimated $2.5 billion and holds a 95 percent stake in the circus company.