Billionaire Clown Heads for Space Station

A spacecraft carrying Canadian circus tycoon Guy Laliberte and two crew mates lifted off from the Kazakh steppe on schedule Wednesday headed for the International Space Station.

The Soyuz capsule carrying the Cirque du Soleil founder, U.S. astronaut Jeffrey Williams and Russian cosmonaut Maxim Surayev shed its rocket stages and entered orbit minutes after shooting up from the Baikonur launch facility atop a tower of flame.

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Friends and family on the ground waited anxiously and then burst into cheers when an announcement that the ship was in orbit came over the loudspeaker. There were ecstatic hugs, sobs of relief and chants of "Guy! Guy!" They then broke into a rendition of Elton John's "Rocket Man."

"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 youngest son. "Now we know he's up there."

Footage from the capsule showed Surayev and Williams strapped in, operating controls and waving occasionally 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."

The are scheduled to arrive at the International Space Station, orbiting 220 miles above Earth, on Friday.

Laliberte, who paid $35 million for his trip, plans to use it to help publicize the world's growing shortage of clean water. But he's also doing his best to make the serious, risky business of space travel fun: Before the launch, the entertainer donned a bulbous red clown nose, blew kisses to supporters and held both hands over his heart in a mime's show of affection.

He brought several of the novelty noses for his crew mates, and has also said he will tickle them as they sleep.

Barilla wore a yellow clown nose as she watched the launch. Also there for the rousing sendoff was Quebec singer Garrou, a friend of Laliberte's.

"I feel a lot more mesmerized than I ever thought I would be," he said after the launch. "Having your friend rising up that fast and that impressively is beyond what I expected."

Laliberte's enthusiasm seemed to infect others during the normally low-key launch preparations. As the crew members climbed up the ladder into the Soyuz capsule, Surayev began singing the pop song "Mammy Blue," and Laliberte and Williams joined him.

Williams, a two-time space traveler who recently became a grandfather, and Surayev plan to stay in orbit for 169 days. Laliberte is to return to Earth after 12 days in space.

Laliberte, 50, has a 95 percent stake in Cirque du Soleil, a circus arts and theater performance company that turned 25 this year.

Surayev brought a plush toy lion that hung in front of him after takeoff to signal the beginning of weightlessness. His preteen daughters had kept the toy under their pillows to "make sure that the lion smells of home for the next six months."