Canadian circus founder will be next space tourist

Canadian circus entrepreneur Guy Laliberté is about to embark on the ultimate high-flying act as the world’s seventh private citizen to buy a ticket into space.

The 50-year-old, Quebec-born founder of Cirque du Soleil has a colourful résumé. He’s an accordion player, a stilt walker and a fire breather – now, he’ll add astronaut to that list as he prepares for a Sept. 30 launch aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule en route to the International Space Station.

Laliberté is the latest customer of Space Adventures Ltd.

The Vienna, Va.-based company is partnered with Rosocosmos (the Russian Space Agency) and sells seats for about $25 million.

“This really does represent my childhood dreams,” Laliberté said at a press conference yesterday. “Ever since I was a young child I wanted to explore. I’ve travelled around the world, and today I am ready to go into space.”

Tickets to space may soon become even more expensive for private citizens, according to Eric Anderson, CEO of Space Adventures.

Current seats are purchased aboard flights already slated to travel to the ISS, but those will be in high demand soon enough. NASA is retiring its fleet of space shuttles in 2010, and the replacement won’t be coming until 2014 at the earliest. To continue putting astronauts into orbit, NASA too will rely on the Soyuz capsule. So Space Adventures will have to buy entirely new Soyuz missions to the ISS to stay in business.

“It would be a dedicated mission,” Anderson says. “It may well be more expensive, but there’d be more opportunities for customized activities.”

The missions would have two private citizens and one astronaut pilot, he adds. Details are being worked out and an announcement will be made once there are determined customers for a particular mission.

Laliberté is currently training at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia. He’s passed a medical examination to be cleared for the flight, but faces weeks of rigorous training to be prepared for the anti-gravity acrobatics that await him in space.

The circus veteran plans to use his orbital voyage to bring attention to a charitable foundation he started in October 2007. The One Drop Foundation focuses on providing access to safe water to the world’s poor.

“There’s an urgent need to raise awareness worldwide on water shortage,” he says.

To that end, he is writing a poem with the help of a friend that will be delivered on a transmission from space. Laliberté hopes the poem and his space journey will help engage people on an emotional level and make them take action on the world’s water shortage problem.

When asked if dropping a fortune on a ticket to space was the best way to address the problem, Laliberté acknowledged there was a financial debate. But the space trip was an efficient use of money, he said.

“I think this is one of the best investments,” Laliberté said. “This will reach more people than if I spent the money on trying to convince them of water’s importance on Earth.”

Canada’s first space tourist will receive the support of the Canadian Space Agency.

“This is an individual who knows how to dream and how to complete a dream,” says Steve MacLean, president of the Canadian Space Agency. “He’s put a lot of money into One Drop. It’s an area that is very important.”

Although no financial aid was given to the mission, the agency will give Laliberté advice on his space mission. They may also take the opportunity to use him as a human guinea pig, and measure how the human body responds to the rigours of space travel.

Laliberté will be asked to draw blood before launch and while in orbit, MacLean says. There’s also other basic experiments that can test hand-and-eye coordination while in space.

The announcement is the latest in a string of firsts for Canada’s involvement in the cosmos.

Astronaut Bob Thirsk is the first Canadian to endure a long-haul space mission, currently on board the ISS for a six-month stint as crewmember.

Fellow astronaut Julie Payette is scheduled for a shuttle mission to the ISS on June 13. When the duo meet on board the orbital outpost, it will be the first time two Canadians would be orbiting the planet simultaneously.

Laliberté will also meet Thirsk on the ISS when he drops in to spend 12 days aboard the station. Laliberté’s announcement of his intentions to become Canada’s first private citizen in space come a week and 25 years after astronaut Marc Garneau became the first Canadian in space.

That mission was also seen as a landmark for commercial spaceflight, as Space Shuttle Endeavour interacted with SPACEHAB, a commercially-owned experiments module.

“Because of Canada’s contribution to the ISS, we’ve had several flights,” MacLean says. “I’ve often wondered if a Canadian would be one of the individuals who would take advantage of the Space Adventures offer.”

The timing of the journey is also ideal for Laliberté, a father of five children. Cirque du Soleil will be making its debut in Russia in October, as it celebrates its 25th year.

“Sometimes when you see those acrobats flying, you get the impression they are in space,” he says.

Laliberté is also planning to unveil a separate artistic production that will highlight the world’s water shortage issue, he revealed at the press conference.

MacLean had some diet-related advice to share with the new space traveler: the coffee on board the ISS is great, directly from Kona, Hawaii. But stay away from the vacuum-packaged shrimp.

They taste like cardboard.

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