Clown blasts off into space

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The billionaire founder of the alternative circus company Cirque du Soleil successfully blasted off into space today fulfilling a lifetime ambition to boldly go where no clown has gone before.

Sporting a trademark bulbous red nose and blowing kisses to friends and family before the tense launch on the Kazakh steppe, Guy Laliberte (acute accent on last e) was said to be in excellent spirits after entering orbit aboard the Soyuz TMA-16 spacecraft.

The stilt-walker and fire-breather has paid $35m for the privilege of leaving the planet which he is doing to highlight the plight of millions of people who face an uncertain future without access to clean water.

The 50-year-old will spend 12 days in space arriving on Friday at the International Space Station (ISS) some 220 miles above the Earth. He is being accompanied on his mission by veteran American astronaut Jeffrey Williams and Russian cosmonaut Maxim Surayev.

M Laliberte’s friends and family chanted and broke into a rendition of Elton John’s Rocket Man as it was announced the entrepreneur’s craft had successfully made it into orbit. "I'm very happy for him. It's amazing," said his partner Claudia Barilla who herself wore a bright yellow nose and carried the couple’s young son. "Now we know he's up there,” she said, tears streaming down her face.

The space travellers have spent 12 years training for the mission but the presence of a clown on board appeared to leaven the mood of seriousness with Mr Surayev treating his fellow crew members to a song before taking the controls.

The Canadian is the seventh space tourist to make the journey to the six-berth ISS. The highlight of his stay will come next week when he will hook up with Earth-bound rock band U2, Colombian pop star Shakira, as well and former US Vice President Al Gore and 14 cities across the globe to lead a poetic performance which can be viewed on the internet. "I'm an artistic person and a creator. I'm not a scientific. I'm not an engineer," said the former street performer in a recent interview.

“Life has given me some qualities, some assets and I have built up a team of very creative people around the world. With those people I think we'll present something that is originally creative and hopefully will have the result of sensitising people toward the situation of water in the world," he added.

The circus owner could be one of the last private visitors to the ISS following NASA’s decision to mothball its shuttle program – relying instead on the Russian space agency to ferry astronauts to the $100bn multi-national project which is still under construction. But Eric Anderson, chief executive officer of Space Adventures, which has organized the private visits, insisted more tourists would make the trip. “I keep hearing that space tourism is ending and it never seems to be true," he said. “We are in flux. There will be access to Space; it's just a matter of when and how.”