LONGUEUIL, Que. - Canada's first space tourist may have already been squeezed out of $35 million for the pleasure of spending 12 days in orbit. But some folks are hoping to make Guy Laliberte bleed a little more.
The Cirque du soleil founder, who blasted off early Wednesday aboard a Russian spacecraft, is expected to take part in some scientific experiments while visiting the International Space Station.
According to the Canadian Space Agency, Canadian astronaut Bob Thirsk is waiting to greet Laliberte at the station. And Thirsk apparently wants to take as much blood as possible from the 50-year-old circus impersario, for research purposes.
"I asked Guy, 'Look, we've only had eight Canadians (in space), you're number nine,"' said CSA boss Steve MacLean.
"I said it this way: 'We'd like to take as much blood out of you as we can'. . . I don't know the details there, but I know that Guy was quite willing to participate in all of that."
Laliberte rocketed his way into becoming Canada's first space tourist from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
He gave the cabin's in-flight camera a double thumbs up just minutes into the flight and told ground control he felt "super." He had a seat on the right side of the cabin, next to a small port hole.
Before the rocket lifted off, the Quebec tycoon said he was determined to play the clown as much as possible while in zero gravity. He's actually brought along a few red noses to share with his astronaut friends.
"I promise I will plant as much as possible nose clowns in space," he said. "So it will be not only brilliant stars but colourful stars in the future."
Laliberte is travelling with Russian cosmonaut Maxim Surayev and American astronaut Jeffrey Williams. It will take two days to reach the space station.
While Laliberte will stay at the orbiting laboratory for nine days, Surayev and Williams will remain until March.
The entertainer's presence seemed to lighten the mood of the typically low-key pre-launch activities.
Prior to leaving for the launch pad, the three travelling companions signed the doors of the rooms they stayed in at the cosmonaut hotel and received a traditional blessing from a Russian orthodox priest.
The jovial crew then sang strains of the pop song "Mammy Blue" as they picked their way through a raucous crowd who cheered and wished them "Bon voyage."
Among the supporters were Laliberte's partner, former model Claudia Barilla, and the Quebec singing star Garou.
After wiggling into their space suits, the trio of space travellers exchanged final words with reporters, family and friends through a pane of glass.
At one point Laliberte donned his trademark red clown nose, blew kisses to his supporters and held both hands over his heart in a mime's show of affection.
Barilla wore a yellow clown nose as she watched the launch.
"I'm very happy for him. It's amazing," she said, tears streaming down her face as she cradled her youngest son. "Now we know he's up there."
Before dreaming of cosmic travel, Laliberte started out as a street performer. Over the years the founding of his innovative entertainment empire Cirque du soleil, saw him rise to an estimated net worth of $2.5 billion.
While the trip to the space station is costing him $35 million, Laliberte said it is the biggest adventure he has ever embarked on.
Laliberte had to train for five months at Star City, outside Moscow, to prepare for what he calls his "poetic social mission." His enthusiasm for the trip is apparent. Determined to truly be the world's first space clown, Laliberte packed a stash of red clown noses to hand out to those at the space station.
Before the launch he also confessed that he plans to tickle his fellow astronauts in their sleep.
Jokes aside, Laliberte said he will also use his cosmic voyage to shine a spotlight on the world's dwindling water supply.
The tycoon has planned a global broadcast from the space station Oct. 9 for the One Drop foundation, an organization he set up in 2007. The performance will be a cross between a concert and a poetry reading for the Earth's population.
Former U.S. vice president Al Gore and Colombian pop star Shakira are among the big names expected to add their voices to the broadcast which will be streamed on the foundation's website.
With thousands of space buffs watching for his antics in zero gravity, Laliberte's trek leaves a colourful mark on Canada's space history.
"It's opening up space to Canadians other than the professional astronauts," said Chris Gainor, a space historian who has penned multiple books on the country's efforts in orbit.
Gainor notes however that Laliberte is part of an elite club of only a handful of tourists who can afford to pay their way into space.
"A lot of people are looking forward to the day they can buy a ticket to the space station," he said. "This is a very modest step in that direction."
The timing of Laliberte's voyage also underscores how busy the year has been for Canadians in space. While at the space station Laliberte will meet with Thirsk, marking just the second time two Canadians have been in orbit together.
The first time was when astronaut Julie Payette travelled to the space station in July.
Laliberte may be the last space tourist to go into orbit for a while, though.
With the U.S. space shuttle program winding down in 2010, Russian rockets will be the only vehicles available to transport astronauts to and from the space station. Seats for paying civilians will consequently be limited.
Still, Laliberte's trip is sure to be memorable, said Gainor.
"Laliberte is a bit more of a character than a lot of people who've gone up," he said. "It will be an interesting episode."