Cirque du Soleil founder eager for space voyage

Guy Laliberté, founder of Cirque du Soleil, said his "Social Poetic Mission" to the International Space Station will help bring art and culture to space exploration.

William Harwood
Bill Harwood has been covering the U.S. space program full-time since 1984, first as Cape Canaveral bureau chief for United Press International and now as a consultant for CBS News. He has covered more than 125 shuttle missions, every interplanetary flight since Voyager 2's flyby of Neptune, and scores of commercial and military launches. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood is a devoted amateur astronomer and co-author of "Comm Check: The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia." You can follow his frequent status updates at the CBS News Space page.
William Harwood
4 min read

JOHNSON SPACE CENTER, Houston--Guy Laliberté, a former street entertainer who founded the enormously successful Cirque du Soleil, says he doesn't plan any fire eating or stilt walking aboard the International Space Station when he visits this fall.

But he might try to teach his crewmates a few card tricks if he can figure out how to do it in weightlessness.

Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté, training for a flight to the International Space Station. NASA

"Take out the fire part!" he laughed during a news conference Thursday at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. "I think this is out of the question by far. The stilts, I don't know how we will be using stilts up there.

"But I think there are a couple of little things, hopefully, that I have learned in my career of street entertainer that I will try to apply up there. ... I think I will be more like a kid in a candy store discovering things that those guys (professional astronauts already) know.

"I know what I can do on Earth, but what I'm really interested in is learning what their world is," he said. "Maybe I'll teach them a couple of tricks of cards, but I don't know in weightlessness how those things can take place."

Laliberté, a Canadian worth an estimated $2.5 billion, is believed to be paying upward of $35 million to visit the International Space Station as a "spaceflight participant," or space tourist, in a deal with the Russian space agency arranged through Space Adventures Ltd.

He is scheduled for launch September 30 aboard the Soyuz TMA-16 spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. His crewmates will be rookie spacecraft commander Maxim Suraev, a colonel in the Russian air force, and NASA astronaut Jeffrey Williams, a shuttle veteran making his second long-duration voyage on the station.

Laliberté will spend nine days aboard the lab complex before returning to Earth aboard the Soyuz TMA-14 capsule October 11 with outgoing station commander Gennady Padalka and NASA flight engineer Michael Barratt. Williams and Suraev will remain aboard the space station as part of the Expedition 21 crew.

"First of all, I would like to say how privileged and honored I am to be flying with these two men," Laliberté said in Houston, where he is training for his upcoming flight. "I feel totally confident. They have been generous sharing with me their knowledge and their advice."

He said his primary objective is to complete his training, pass the exams, and make sure he can take care of himself without bothering the station's professional astronauts.

"The first time that we met I said my intention, my first priority, is to be able to take care of myself up there," Laliberté said. "They helped me to focus on what I should know. At the end, I don't think I'll be a burden. I'm there and I'm committed, I'm a perfectionist. I intend to be ready.

"Yes, I'll probably need help at certain moments," he said. "But I think I'll be a contributor to the success of that mission. Hopefully I'll be well received. I intend to behave as a guest who has good manners. Simple as that."

Laliberté is the founder of the One Drop Foundation, dedicated to improving water conservation. He said he plans to hold a news conference in August to discuss his "Poetic Social Mission" to the space station and to unveil its theme and objectives.

He would not discuss specifics Thursday, but the One Drop Web site says "Laliberté's mission in space is dedicated to making an impact on how water, our most precious resource, is protected and shared. And he will be applying tools he has used so well for most of his life to bring about change: arts and culture."

While some professional astronauts have complained in the past that space tourists have no place on the station, Williams and Suraev both said they welcomed Laliberté.

"So far, my assessment has been very favorable," Williams said. "I think physically, mentally, emotionally he's getting himself prepared and he will be prepared for this adventure in his life."

Said Suraev: "He is really very eager to fly and he is charged with a lot of positive energy. ... He's just a good guy. Since (meeting him) my opinion hasn't changed. As the flight participant, as a crew member, he's a very, very good candidate."

Asked what he is looking forward to the most, Laliberté said "enjoying looking at planet Earth and space."

"I think this is a great, great opportunity of inspiration," he said. "And I intend to inspire myself as much as possible. And also, I would say living a human experience with the people I will be up there (with) and living that moment fully like I do on Earth."

He said his Poetic Social Mission "is a project that I'm very proud of, it is a mission that hopefully will bring and create awareness in regard to the situation of water around the world. As you know, I'm not a scientist, I'm not a doctor, I'm not an engineer. I'm an artist, a creator. And I'll try to accomplish this mission with my creativity and what life has given me as a tool."