Guy Laliberte’s Poetic Social Mission
PART 1: “The Countdown Begins”


Six years ago, on September 30, 2009, a civilian became a spaceflight participant aboard Soyuz TMA-16, a manned flight from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan to and from the International Space Station (ISS). Joining two members of the Expedition 21 crew – Russian cosmonaut Maksim Surayev (Commander, from the Russian Federal Space Agency, FSA) and NASA Astronaut Jeffery Williams (Flight Engineer) – was Guy Laliberté, who paid approximately $35 million USD for his seat through the American firm Space Adventures, becoming the first Canadian space tourist in the process. Space Adventures as you may or may not know, offers a variety of programs, such as: Orbital spaceflight missions to the International Space Station (with an option to participate in a spacewalk), Circumlunar missions around the Moon (although none of those have taken place), zero gravity flights, cosmonaut training programs, spaceflight qualification programs, and reservations on future suborbital spacecraft.

Since 2001, Space Adventures has launched seven clients on eight successful missions to the International Space Station (ISS): In April 2001, the company sent American businessman Dennis Tito for a reported $20 million payment, making him the first space tourist. South African businessman Mark Shuttleworth did the same in April 2002, becoming the first African in space. Gregory Olsen became the third private citizen to travel to the ISS in October 2005, followed by the first female space tourist, Anousheh Ansari, who completed her 10-day orbital mission in September 2006. Charles Simonyi, an ex-executive at Microsoft, became the fifth space tourist who visited the ISS in April 2007, then again in March 2009. (He is the world’s first private space explorer who launched to space twice.) In 2008, game developer Richard Garriott, the first second-generation U.S. astronaut, became the sixth client to travel to the ISS. And lastly (as of this writing), Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté.

TMA-16 was the 103rd flight of a Soyuz spacecraft, the first launching in 1967. To say it’s the Russian’s space work-horse is an understatement; it’s been quite reliable. Soyuz is the third Soviet human spaceflight program after the Vostok and Voskhod, and is directly comparable to NASA’s Apollo program of the same era (making Vostok the 1-man capsule comparable to Mercury, and Voskhod the 2-man capsule comparable to the Gemini program). In fact, Soyuz was originally developed by the Soviet Union as part of a moon landing project, intending to put Soviet cosmonauts on the Moon, which, alas, didn’t happen. However, the launch of Soyuz TMA-16 marked the first time since 1969 that three Soyuz craft were in orbit simultaneously – Soyuz TMA-14 was launched on March 26, 2009 (and consequently was the craft Laliberté returned in on October 11, 2009), Soyuz TMA-15 was launched on May 27, 2009 (returning December 1, 2009), and TMA-16 (which returned with another crew on March 18, 2010).

Besides fulfilling a life-long dream, Laliberté’s spaceflight was dedicated to raising awareness on water issues facing humankind on planet Earth, making his spaceflight the first – in his words – “poetic social mission” in space. And much of this experience was captured on film and recently spun into a feature-length documentary entitled TOUCH THE SKY. While the documentary is a compelling visual look into the experience, the adventure was also captured by Laliberté himself in the form of an online journal.

At the time these events were originally taking place, we here at Fascination were more concerned with the happenings here on Earth – with BELIEVE, ZAIA, ZED, OVO, VIVA ELVIS, and BANANA SHPEEL – so we didn’t give much thought to this endeavor. However, thanks to the recently discovered documentary (the aforementioned TOUCH THE SKY), we recently re-discovered a text-copy of this journal in our archives, which allows us to explore this extraordinary time in Cirque du Soleil’s history in more detail. Thus in this series we’ll be taking a look back at Guy’s Poetic Social Mission through his eyes, from the journal, in monthly installments, taking you through the initial steps Guy undertook all the way through to the launch and landing.

Buckle up, Rocket Men.


POST 1 | DAY 1 – April 19

The adventure officially began on April 29, 2009 with the signing of my contract with Space Adventures! My departure for Russia has been set for May 9th. That leaves me very little time to prepare, but I’m used to performing acrobatic tricks! The very next day, I get together with my team in Montreal to brainstorm and get organized. The film crew is on board and immediately begins to document the adventure. The documentary film crew will follow me throughout this project and will cover several elements, such as: Demonstrating the level of organization a trip like this entails, telling my story and that of Cirque du Soleil’s, and capturing the intricacies of the artistic process which will unfold during this mission. Everyone is enthusiastic: the ignition is on and the engine is roaring!

“Guy Laliberté will bring an innovative and creative perspective to the crew of Expedition 21,” said Mr. Alexey Krasnov, Head of Human Space Flight of FSA, in the initial Press Release on June 4, 2009. “We believe that the objective of his Poetic Social Mission to raise awareness of water issues facing the world is part of what space exploration needs to do. We welcome him as a team member and will offer all the support he needs to achieve his mission. We are also very impressed with the humanitarian objectives of the ONE DROP Foundation, founded by Guy Laliberté.” With the theme Water for all, all for water, it wishes to raise awareness to water issues in the world, ensure that access to clean water is available to all and putting in place education programs using art. “The strong humanitarian values put forward by ONE DROP Foundation and Guy [is] shared by the FSA”.

“I have been described as many things throughout my 25 years with Cirque du Soleil. Fire-breather, entrepreneur, street smart, creative,” says Laliberté. “I am honored and humbled today with my new job description: humanitarian space explorer. Traveling has always been my way of life and I have been researching the possibilities of space travel with Space Adventures Ltd since 2004. But I needed it to be the right time and for the right purpose. This is the time. And the purpose is clear: to raise awareness on water issues to humankind on planet earth.”
“My mission is dedicated to making a difference on this vital resource by using what I know best: artistry. This will be the first poetic social mission in space. This is also a very symbolic time for me to join my colleagues of Expedition 21 at Star City since, after 25 years, this is the year that Cirque du Soleil will be introduced to Russia after so many years! The timing could not be most appropriate!”

During his 12-day stay at the ISS, Guy Laliberté’s POETIC SOCIAL MISSION will share information about water issues in the world through a singular poetic approach. The messages he transmits will raise awareness for ONE DROP Foundation initiatives that promote Water for all, all for water.

The Canadian Space Agency salutes Guy Laliberté’s initiative as Canada’s first private space explorer. The agency will advise Laliberté and he will meet with Canadian astronaut Dr. Robert Thirsk while at ISS. “Canada’s leadership role in space exploration is at the forefront of our mandate,” said Dr. Steve MacLean, president of the Canadian Space Agency. “This humanitarian mission, imagined by a leading entrepreneur and artist, demonstrates the talent, imagination and dedication that Canadians are recognized for worldwide.”

Eric Anderson, President and CEO of Space Adventures Ltd. added, “I have known Guy for many years and is a member of our Orbital Mission Explorers Circle. His approach to his first spaceflight was always original. Since our first discussions in 2004, he has wanted to travel in space for a purpose and to express his unique vision. I believe that his Poetic Social Mission truly realizes his intentions and we are proud to be able to help him to make it a reality.”

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POST 2 | DAY 23 – May 11, 2009

Departed from Montreal around 23H00; the adrenalin flowing through my body makes it hard to sleep, but I manage to grab a few hours. Touchdown in Moscow was around 15H00. A beautiful sunny afternoon welcomed us as we are greeted by a Space Adventures-Russia employee who’s there to help us through customs. Not a small feat considering all our film equipment! That first step taken, we board a minibus with all our luggage and arrive at Star City after having spent almost two hours on the road. When we arrive, other members of Space Adventures-Russia are there to help us get settled in. My room looks like it’s straight out of the ‘70s. It’s not very big, but it’ll do! [NOTE: Star City is a 1960’s era Soviet-built city. Much of it today looks like it did then.]

Star City is only about thirty kilometers from Moscow but with the extremely dense traffic it can take up to three hours to drive there. In Star City, there are a lot of green spaces including small lakes where swans glide along in the water: it’s very relaxing. It’s quite apparent that the buildings of this ‘city’ were built in the ‘60s. There are modern houses, here and there. However, they’re not generally representative of the local décor.

The lifestyle here is peaceful. It seems like the ‘city’ is in full bloom with all these baby strollers around! The people are very warm and welcoming and our attempts to babble a few words in Russian make them smile. It is relatively easy to find what we need (food, toiletries, etc.) but, once again, the buildings appear to be from another time! Makeshift tables covered in fruits and vegetables for sale sit by the side of the road; small trailers serve as dépanneurs (i.e. convenience stores).

Tomorrow we’ll take advantage of a national holiday in Russia (celebrating Victory Day 1945) to get settled in once and for all. The sun is still with us.

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POST 3 | DAY 24 – May 12, 2009

The first stage of the mission which, according to everyone here, is the least amusing part of the training program: the medical evaluation. That being said, it is a crucial step since all my test results will be submitted to the GMK (the Russian acronym for ‘Main Medical Commission’) who will then decide whether or not I’ll continue training for my mission in space. I was marched out in front of a group of doctors (fortunately, a Russian interpreter was by my side, translating everything back to me as not many people speak English here); there were many tests I was subjected to. The whole medical portion of this experience is quite invasive, whereas virtually every part of my body was scanned, weighed, and probed. Even Cirque du Soleil’s Costume Department, which takes up to 70 measurements per artist to make each costume fit to a T, doesn’t go that far! After having completed the tests at the GCTC (Gagarin Cosmonauts Training Center), I had to go to Moscow for a few days to undergo yet some more tests! Upon arrival at the hotel, I had a huge plate of spaghetti: I deserved such spoils after what I’d recently gone through! At the end of the day, I attended Eurovision, caught Cirque du Soleil’s 3-4 minute performance and visited with the artists. I was so proud of my team! [NOTE: this is the Eurovision event I touched on in the “Michel Laprise – Coordinating Cirque’s Special Events” two-part series in early 2014, which you can read here.]

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POST 4 | DAY 29 – May 17, 2009

I get a well-deserved day off after having gone through a battery of tests (such as the altitude chamber test: a series of exercises to evaluate how the body reacts under various atmospheric conditions with increased and decreased levels of oxygen). Although, the day’s rest is more to prepare for the two other tests which await me upon my return to Star City! Following these latest tests, the first committee of doctors will send its recommendations to the GMK, where the process is more administrative. My centrifuge test is scheduled for the morning of May 19th. The GMK’s verdict will only be rendered on May 29th… So, 10 days of waiting for absolution to perform my mission in space! [NOTE: The centrifuge test is accomplished by sitting in a machine that whirls an astronaut or cosmonaut around while they sit in a specially designed cabin at the long end of an arm. The purpose is to simulate the high levels of acceleration the body will undergo at liftoff. The testing is not only to see how much you can take but to prevent a G-induced Loss of Consciousness, a situation when g-forces move the blood away from the brain to the extent that consciousness is lost.]

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POST 5 | DAY 35 – May 23, 2009

It’s a very relaxing experience when they take body measurements to make a flight suit and seat. The best part of all of this starts with having gone through my last medical test. Now, it’ll be all about starting my training and getting to know my new posse. [NOTE: Unlike the Space Shuttle, the Soyuz is a capsule (similar to the Apollo capsule that took Americans to the Moon). But unlike the Apollo capsule, which had standard (but highly designed) couches for the Astronauts to sit on, the Soyuz has specially molded seats for its Cosmonauts to use. These are individually molded to fit each person’s body to ensure a tight, comfortable fit when the module lands on Earth. Because unlike NASA’s capsules, which rode its parachutes for a relatively soft landing in the Pacific Ocean, Soyuz “lands” on the flat steppe of Kazakhstan in central Asia – yes, on land – so a highly cushioned couch tailored to the cosmonaut is required to soften that controlled crash-landing.]

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POST 6 | DAY 39 – May 27, 2009

On the 26th we left for Baikonur to help with launch of Soyuz TMA-15. (The acceleration is incredible and the noise is piercing; it’s powerful enough that we can feel the ground shake under our feet. And it all lasts just 30 seconds, much like a hallucination!) The flight from Moscow to Baikonur is about three hours long. Once at Baikonur’s airport, we have to transport the luggage to our minibus under a blazing sun. It’s like we’ve arrived in the Twilight Zone, with a small police station housed in an old bus; camels sharing the road with cars; and a left lane which allows vehicles equipped with a special permit to pass everyone else! We check in at the aptly-named Sputnik Hotel where the air-conditioning works so well we forget it’s over 30°C outside!

After checking in at the hotel, we visit the facilities where I’ll be quarantined for two weeks prior to lift off. The place is very ‘zen’ and resembles a small botanical garden. Now, I love gardens, so I felt enveloped and could easily see myself taking peaceful walks around it. I became even more emotional when I imagined my children and my love coming to visit me when the time comes, if they are granted permission that is.

There are several long paths lined with trees, with a sign in front of each and every one of them. This portion of the garden is home to a beautiful symbolic tradition. Indeed, every member of each Soyuz crew plants a tree before their launch. Their name and the date are affixed to it. Since we can choose the type of tree we want to plant, I thought it would be a great idea to plant… hemp! Oops! After the visit, we ate supper at the hotel’s cafeteria. Dinner was followed by an impromptu cocktail where I became acquainted with several members of my new posse. What a fascinating world!

The next day, the gang and I returned to take the elevator, which took us all the way to the top (the astronauts’ cabin). Out of respect, I did not touch the shuttle, but I sure took a good look at it! To think that in just a few months, I’ll be taking that elevator again, this time, to climb aboard the Soyuz… It was incredibly hot! The effects of the heat were made worse by mosquitoes. It must be like a furnace inside an astronaut’s flight suit! The timing was super for me… That day, we were accompanied by an African whom the Russians thought to be a famous star. They all wanted to have their picture taken with him which, in turn, attracted the media’s attention and allowed me to move along incognito.

[NOTE: Soyuz is a rocket, and a spacecraft. The launcher was introduced in 1966, deriving from the Vostok launcher, which in turn was based on the 8K74 or R-7a intercontinental ballistic missile. It was initially a three-stage rocket with a Block I upper stage. Later a Molniya variant was produced by adding a fourth stage, allowing it to reach the highly elliptical molniya orbit. The production of Soyuz launchers reached a peak of 60 per year in the early 1980s. It has become the world’s most used space launcher, flying over 1700 times, far more than any other rocket. It is a very old basic design, but is notable for low cost and very high reliability, both of which appeal to commercial clients. Learn more about the rocket itself at Wikipedia: As for the capsule itself, the Soyuz is also an old design, but has gone through many modifications to keep it relatively current, while also being relatively cheap to fly. A Soyuz spacecraft consists of three parts (from front to back): a spheroid orbital module, a small aerodynamic reentry module, and a cylindrical service module with solar panels attached. The first two portions are habitable living space. By moving as much as possible into the orbital module, which does not have to be shielded or decelerated during atmospheric re-entry, the Soyuz three-part craft is both larger and lighter than the two-part Apollo spacecraft’s command module. The Apollo command module had six cubic meters of living space and a mass of 5000 kg; the three-part Soyuz provided the same crew with nine cubic meters of living space, an airlock, and a service module for the mass of the Apollo capsule alone. This does not consider orbital module that could be used instead of LEM in Apollo. Soyuz can carry up to three cosmonauts and provide life support for them for about 30 person days. Learn more about the capsule and its capabilities at Wikipedia:]

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POST 7 | DAY 41 – May 29, 2009

Fifteen minutes to check-out of the Sputnik Hotel and we’re off to catch our return flight to Moscow, my head filled with extraordinary images and feelings. They’re helping a lot with my integration, here, and thanks to my hosts’ wonderful efforts, people are getting to know me and understand the Poetic Social Mission I’m on. I’m very excited about this journey I’m undertaking and everyone I’m meeting through it. This is both a personal challenge, as everything I’m experiencing here is new to me, and a grand project that will benefit my ONE DROP Foundation as well as Cirque du Soleil.

The duration of the training I’ve started is the shortest amount of time ever given to someone going into space. While this is a real challenge, I feel up to it. At this point, it all hangs on me being a good student! It’s ironic that I’m back behind a school desk at 49 years old, when I never liked school in the first place and did not attend it very long in my youthful prime! But I’m super motivated to achieve my goal. It feeds the fire that moves me forward. After all, I’ve just passed my first exams, which were the hardest!
As for the rest, I’m very happy getting myself back into shape and am completely focused. You should see me get on my bike, every morning, to get to my classes: it’s a whole lot slower than a sports car! [NOTE: Russian tradition dictates that all significant meetings are toasted with vodka, of course, while yelling three times, “Hoorah! Hoorah! Hoorah!” The task wasn’t too difficult for Guy as he noted in this post, given that his previous Russian experiences (frequent trips since ’86 and being around Cirque du Soleil’s Russian artists) had prepared him well!]

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The End?

No, we have only just begun to dive into the adventure Guy Laliberté had preparing for his Poetic Social Mission in Space. Next month we’ll continue with “Training Kicks up a Notch”, the month of June. Followed by “Getting My Hands Dirty” (July 2009), “From Training to Reality” (August 2009), “T-30 Days and Counting! (September 2009, Pt 1), “Departure for Baikonur” (September 2009, Pt 2), “Moving Stars and Earth for Water” (On Orbit), and finishing up with “Back on Earth – Mission Success!”

To Be Continued!