Guy Laliberte’s Poetic Social Mission
PART 5: “T-30 Days and Counting”


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. 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. In Part 1, “The Countdown Begins” we listened as Guy took us through his first steps. In Part 2, “Training Kicks Up a Notch”, Guy got settled in, and passed a few essential tests. In Part 3, “Getting My Hands Dirty”, Guy gets down into the nuts and bolts of his training. In Part 4, “From Training to Reality”, Guy gets a bit more hands on with the actual equipment he’ll be flying in. And now we continue with September’s logs… there’s only 30 days left to go!


POST 59 | DAY 158 – September 01, 2009

I slept badly and woke up with a sore throat and a slight fever. Uh-oh. That’s all it takes for me to become paranoid. I start asking myself all sorts of questions. Why do I have these symptoms? Is it the pressure? The lack of sleep? I absolutely refuse to have come this far for nothing! As this is really not a good time to be sick, I prepare myself an anti-flu cocktail: Benylin, homeopathic flu buster, NeoCitran, Vicks… the whole kit and caboodle!

So I could get some rest, I immediately called Renée-Claude to cancel the interviews that were scheduled with journalists that evening. I also decided to cancel the weekend I had planned with friends in Moscow to celebrate my 50th birthday. I wasn’t willing to take the risk of some more nights of poor sleep that would further weaken my immune system.

Taking my glazed look along with me, I nonetheless dragged myself to our workout session in the ISS! Given the limited space, my partners reacted quite strongly to the not-so-subtle scent of camphor I was wearing! I told them I was fighting the flu and was afraid of being contagious, but they didn’t seem to worry…

Perfect timing: according to our schedule, we were supposed to finish at 6:00 p.m. but we finished at 1:00 instead (well, Jeff and I, that is). So I went back to my apartment to rest and was able to take a very sudorific 2-hour nap! Then the telephone started ringing non-stop and I worked on the last details of the press conference.

* * *

POST 60 | DAY 159 – September 02, 2009

My last posts come to you a bit late and I’d like to apologize for this delay. Organizing the September 2nd press conference kept me quite busy, but I have lots to tell you about this special day. I hope you enjoy reading about it in the 3 posts I’ve prepared, which cover days 159, 160 and 161.

According to my schedule for Wednesday, I was only starting my day at 11:00 a.m., which was lucky for me since the bout of fever and the sweating the night before had disturbed my sleep. My eyes still looked dull when I woke up but that didn’t keep me from being in good spirits: it was my birthday! Poking my head outside the door, I discovered magnificent scenery: the first rays of the sun shining through the mist rising off the lake. I took a few minutes to express my gratitude to life for everything it had given me over the last 50 years. And I made myself smile by placing an order for 50 more of the same, all the while being fully aware that life has been very good to me so far: no matter what lies ahead, I’ve already received more than my share of blessings.

After my workout at 6:00 p.m., I immediately contacted the team in Montréal and we went over all the details together. Then, I headed to the cottage where my film crew is staying and where everything was set up for the press conference.

* * *

POST 61 | DAY 160 – September 03, 2009

My last posts come to you a bit late and I’d like to apologize for this delay. Organizing the September 2nd press conference kept me quite busy, but I have lots to tell you about this special day. I hope you enjoy reading about it in the 3 posts I’ve prepared, which cover days 159, 160 and 161.

Since the press conference was broadcasted live on the Web, we were all a bit anxious since this type of transmission is complicated to do from here. The technicians were nervous and so was I. After all, I would be announcing an event that I’m proud of, all the more so because we had little time to set it up. I was proud of my team and happy to unveil the details to all. I truly believe that it’ll be terrific.

A technical problem arose a few minutes after starting the press conference. Luckily for us, we had allowed for a delay! The technicians were quick to act and we took everything from the start.

I had a lot of information to give in French AND in English, in addition to answering the many questions asked. Overall, everything went well but I’ve come to realize that, despite my experience, press conferences are not the form of interview where I feel most at ease!

After the conference, my team came out with champagne to celebrate my birthday so, even though I was tired, I took the time to enjoy it with them. I also tasted a wine that’s as old as I am! It felt odd to discover that a 50-year old wine can retain its qualities… I hope the same can be said of me! 😉

I also received a very nice surprise from the staff back at my office. They had put together a whole “outer-space special” on video to mark my 50th birthday, which really made me laugh! And then the film crew made us all laugh with their montage of bloopers shot last week when Claudia and the kids came to visit me in Star City!

To top it all off, Vladmir, the cottage owner, came with his 2 grandchildren to give me a present, a clown doll, which I found really adorable.

I headed back to my room early, my heart filled with joy, touched by everyone’s thoughtfulness. When I stepped into my room, I saw that I had received quite a lot of birthday calls, text messages and e-mails but I was just too exhausted. I’m sorry for not answering you all but I think that if I had, I’d still be at it right now! Before calling it a day, I briefly went on the Internet and was happy to see that the conference seemed to have reached its goal.

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POST 62 | DAY 161 – September 04, 2009

My last posts come to you a bit late and I’d like to apologize for this delay. Organizing the September 2nd press conference kept me quite busy, but I have lots to tell you about this special day. I hope you enjoy reading about it in the 3 posts I’ve prepared, which cover days 159, 160 and 161.

I woke up feeling much better. It looks as though I was able to get rid of this flu. I was also scheduled to start quite late that day, which was perfect. I had feared a very intense and busy week but, as it turned out, it was the least demanding week in terms of training hours: a beautiful birthday gift!

We had an exam in the afternoon and everything went well for our team. We also had very interesting meetings with experts who will be taking part in our mission.

At the end of the day, I was interviewed by a correspondent from La Presse, a Montréal daily, followed by an “official” birthday dinner organized by Geneviève, with my cosmonauts/astronauts, part of the Space Adventures team, the film crew, and so on. It was a quiet evening, but very pleasant, with more delicious Armenian shashliks on the table!

Of course, in keeping with Russian tradition, we raised our glasses many times throughout the meal. One toast from Max and Jeff touched me deeply. I’m truly proud and honoured to do this trip with these two wonderful people and delighted to see that our relationship is getting stronger every day.

The meal ended with my favourite Russian crepe cake, complete with cream and strawberries, that I’ve managed to resist since my arrival in Star City—but not today!

My film team then presented me with a video montage (a secret request from Geneviève!) of birthday wishes from friends and family members, and even from the ISS team! This beautiful token of friendship is proof to me that the small gestures are those that make us live the most intense emotions.

The evening came to an end quite early because my 2 two partners had a centrifuge test the next day. Oh, how I sympathized! I did offer them an exchange (their centrifuge test for my vestibular test in Baikonur), but they didn’t accept. It’s strange that no one wishes to exchange anything for the vestibular test, don’t you think?

And so I went to bed early, my head filled with all those lovely video messages and my heart filled with love.

* * *

POST 63 | DAY 163 – September 06, 2009

As soon as I got up on Friday, I went for a swim before my class on communication methods and an exam on how to install our seats and pack our effects on board the Soyuz.

Once my week was over, I felt completely drained but happy, and was looking forward to a quiet weekend. And so, on Saturday, September 5, I took advantage of my time off to clean my mess (clothes, food, paperwork and so on), go through my backlog, return my calls, get a massage… Though I would have loved to see my friends in Moscow, it was wise of me to stay put and be productive instead (while keeping nice and quiet!).

By the end of the day, my apartment looked spick-and-span. And I slept like a bear in winter!
On Sunday, I had planned to rearrange the music in my iTunes (this is a hobby of mine that I hadn’t done in quite a while), but I was very disappointed to discover that my application wasn’t working! Since it was Sunday, there were no technicians available, so my project ended right then and there. 🙁

As it was nice outside, I used my free time to go for a long walk, then I filed photos, made a few more calls and watched some movies. All in all, not a bad thing! I guess this goes to show you that things usually happen for a reason…

Sadly, I don’t have any pictures of bed sheets to show you this week since I happened to be bedridden on the day when the cleaning is usually done. They weren’t able to make my bed, so they left me with the same sheets (and my germs…) as the week before.

* * *

POST 64 | DAY 164 – September 07, 2009

Big week ahead! This is our final week of exams and a very important moment for the team since each one of us will be tested by members of the commission, Energia and all the other partners. To receive permission to fly and be approved as a flight crew, good grades are essential! It’s also a question of honour, since it involves the team’s reputation. I’m trying to remain calm and focused—I don’t want my team to lose points because of me!

Together, on Monday morning, we reviewed our work plan for the simulation exercise aboard the ISS, including each member’s responsibilities, the sequence to follow, etc. In the afternoon, we prepared for the simulation exercise aboard the Soyuz.

Though this day was a statutory holiday in Canada and the United States, just a glance at the state of my room would tell you that it was definitely not a work-free day for me! As usual on Monday evenings, I had lots to do, which I handled as quickly as possible since I needed to go over all my course material and mentally prepare myself. The key is to remain focused throughout the next two days.

* * *

POST 65 | DAY 165 – September 08, 2009

Before I describe my day, let me briefly explain to you the procedure that precedes a simulation exercise. First, we report back to the members of the commission in the big room where the simulator is located. (Today, there were a lot of people.) First, we salute our instructors, then the hank-ranking officials (called the Big Bananas by the people here!). According to protocol, the three of us must remain standing, facing a table on which lay our flag and several envelopes. One of the crew members must choose an envelope, which all three of us sign and then hand back to one of the officials. This envelope contains a “surprise” exam that is added to our work plan, to test how well we do when faced with an unusual situation. Let’s just hope we won’t be ejected from the building one day!

Today, our simulation exercise in the ISS started out slowly but surely. We dealt with a few communication problems, some of our equipment broke down and we had to extinguish a fire (no less!). All we needed to top it all off was a battle with Darth Vader!

Usually, when we have simulation days such as this one, we get together afterwards for lunch with the backup team, and we use this time to continue our preparations for the afternoon. At lunchtime today, though, the backup team didn’t show up—we found out they hadn’t finished their simulation exercise in the Soyuz. Needless to say, we were quite puzzled!

And so, to get back to the procedure, the officials watch us all day and, at the end, they give us their comments. This is sometimes followed by some debating, since we’re allowed to explain the reasons behind our decisions. Today, we were given a perfect mark: 5 out of 5!

Once this was over, we went to see what was going on with the backup team, who were in the Soyuz while we were in the ISS. They were in the process of receiving their marks. This was interesting for us since they made a few mistakes that would certainly be useful for us the next day…

In the evening, I had interviews, meetings and videos to prepare for the mission log. I still had a good night’s sleep and was feeling well rested the next morning.

* * *

POST 66 | DAY 166 – September 09, 2009

On Wednesday, the simulations continued and we followed the same protocol here as for the ISS simulation: we put our spacesuits on, stood facing the table, picked an envelope and off we went for another simulation—in very good spirits. I had less tasks to carry out this time since the exercises were intended more for the commanding officer and the engineer. Once again, we received a perfect mark: 5 out of 5. We were proud as peacocks!

Following tradition, the two crews (us and the backups) invited the officials for drinks and hors d’oeuvres once the two simulations were over. We raised our vodka-filled glasses to this and to that… and it didn’t take long before we were all hugging, congratulating and thanking each other, paying compliments and offering words of support. It also didn’t take long for the clown in me to be slightly tipsy!

What followed afterwards was probably the most dangerous part of my training: pedaling my way back to my apartment, safe and sound! Keeping my balance was quite a challenge, as was avoiding all the obstacles on my path that the vodka had conveniently erased from my mind: holes in the road, wild—and truly terrorizing—dogs… and I forgot all the rest!

When I finally made it to my apartment, I succeeded in calling my love via Skype (I don’t think I was extremely coherent) and then plopped onto my bed fully dressed! At least I wasn’t aware of being attacked by mosquitoes that night. But maybe I killed them all with my new extra-strength vaporizer: my vodka-laced breath!

* * *

POST 67 | DAY 167 – SEPTEMBER 10, 2009

On Thursday, September 10, my mind and body were able to function normally once again after a good shower. Today was another formal day, starting with a meeting with the high-ranking officials in Star City.

Today (and I know you’ll have a good laugh at this one), is also the beginning of a series of important official ceremonies where I’ll be required to wear a tie! I congratulated myself for having snatched a few during my last weekends in Moscow and was relieved to find a black one that perfectly matched my black jacket. 🙂 However, I needed the kind help of a “tie-knot” expert—Marsel to be specific!

Once the briefing with the high-ranking officials was over, we headed over to the White Hall for the projection of a slide show displaying all the training we’ve followed.

Then, we went back to the office where the doctor gave us certain instructions and handed us an anti-virus kit that included hand soap and alcohol—no, not vodka—wipes, since we will be put in semi-quarantine as of tomorrow. Without cutting ourselves off from others, we will have to avoid crowds, not shake hands with someone who seems ill and disinfect our hands often. So, if one of us refuses to shake your hand, this may be a sign that you should see a doctor!

The doctor’s visit was followed by the press conference where, once again, I was asked a lot of questions.

We then went on to the Star City museum, in Gagarin’s old office, for another tradition that involves signing the book that contains all the signatures of astronauts, and adding a personal message. I wrote a line that means everything to me: “Today, I feel like the Little Prince.”

Afterwards, we all went to Moscow to visit the Red Square. The visit started in a very touching fashion: we laid flowers on the grave of certain cosmonauts, including Gagarin’s.

We also did a private visit of the Red Square buildings. This was very pleasant, since the wives, the children and the guides were with us. I was the only one without his family, so needless to say, I missed them even more.

The visit over, my teammates were officially on a 5-day vacation. As for me, I’ll have to wait till Christmas unfortunately. 🙁 I spent a part of the evening in interviews with the Russian press to talk about the Poetic Social Mission as well as the Varekai show that starts in Moscow next October 23.

I wanted to make the most of my time in Moscow, so I invited my coordinator, Geneviève, my film crew, and one of the Cirque du Soleil partners in Russia, Craig Cohon, to the Nobu restaurant to celebrate this last step in the examination process. I was pleased to have them taste new types of sushi (though Geneviève, of course, insisted on having maki!) and some good bottles of sake. We were so drowsy on our way back to Star City that I think our snores were powerful enough to push the minibus forward!

That night, I had the weirdest dreams since I started training, and I tossed and turned so much that I hardly slept. Luckily, I didn’t dream about dying of suffocation under a sumo wrestler! The fact that I’m about to start another chapter of this adventure probably explains why I’m so restless.

* * *

POST 68 | DAY 168 – SEPTEMBER 11, 2009

I woke up a bit confused on Friday, dragging my feet after an almost sleepless night. My training that day was difficult: it was our survival course and practice that would teach us emergency techniques should the Soyuz land in water or in the mountains or catch fire…

The toughest practice was in the afternoon, after the simulation exercise in water. This was the first time we were testing the Soyuz in a sort of real-life situation, i.e., with all our luggage around us and the doors closed. Noting the little space available gave me a little shock—and the fact that we had quite an imposing trainer in between us added to this claustrophobic feeling!

So for 2 hours, the exercise involved removing our spacesuit, and putting on a jumpsuit, then another one (a winter one, this time), a waterproof suit, then our life buoy. And there you have it! What you should also know is that we had to change in a space about the size of one person. I think I lost 2 kilos during this exercise!

All this took place with the rescue team (the first members to arrive on the scene after a landing), in an old warehouse where older Soyuz spacecraft and flags of the Soviet Union are stored.

After this experience, I enjoyed a wonderful 2-hour swim in cool, soothing water. A sheer delight! And, just to stay on the topic of water, my day ended with a ONE DROP board meeting.

* * *

POST 69 | DAY 170 – SEPTEMBER 13, 2009

I almost (and I do say ALMOST) had a weekend off, but no! The only moment of relaxation consisted of a massage on Saturday, September 12. After this 90-minute break, I went over the last details of our show Poetic Social Mission: Moving Stars and Earth for Water with my creative director, Fernand Rainville, and the executive producer, Martin Dignard.

What’s great is that new artists have confirmed and I find it really encouraging to have such strong support. For certain cities, the show is really well organized and for others, we see that there’s still a lot to do. Luckily for me, I don’t have any hair left on my head to tear out! But it’s all part of the challenge and we knew what to expect, so we’ll deal with it!

On Sunday, we had a little brunch in the American cottage: a good breakfast and Bloody Marys! The atmosphere was very relaxed and friendly, but I had to leave early because I had a work session in the afternoon to film the backup sequences for our show.

The work session finished right on time: I was able to listen to the Italian Grand Prix and talk via Skype to my oldest son, who was celebrating his birthday. I then listened to a few films and went to bed for a nice long sleep.

The week went by so fast. I’m eager to leave for Baikonur now and to start preparing myself mentally for the launch. I can’t wait to live these last moments of preparation. I really am ready!

* * *

POST 70 | DAY 171 – SEPTEMBER 14, 2009

So here we are finally! Only a few days before our departure for Baikonur!

On Monday, September 14, Barbara and I had our last course (actually, the second part of last Friday’s course). It consisted in helicopter rescue operation simulations in the Hydrolab. The training facilities here are similar to those we saw in Houston.

First of all, we underwent a brief medical examination (blood pressure, heart rate and so on) followed by a short theoretical preparation. The three simulations consisted in a ground exercise with our survival suits on, then a helicopter rescue exercise wearing our spacesuits and, to finish, a rescue-at-sea exercise during which we had to wear our water suits over 3 layers of clothing. Everything went smoothly and we were even able to have a few laughs!

As I was leaving the Hydrolab, I bumped into a group of Quebecers whose visit of Russia included a stop in Star City. We talked a bit and took a group picture. It was a really pleasant encounter.

This was followed by an interview with Radio-Canada, a 2-km swim and, to top it all off, a Cirque du Soleil board meeting. Of course, I also had to continue packing my bags!

* * *

POST 71 | DAY 172 – SEPTEMBER 15, 2009

Tuesday, September 15, was another “protocol and tie” day, since it was our official visit with Mr. Anatoly Perminov, head of Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency. The main and backup crews were both present.

While we were waiting for Maxim and Sasha (the other commander), who were on their way back from a weekend in the country, we thought of escaping to McDonald’s but our doctors wouldn’t let us! To think that this is the first time I feel like eating junk food since I arrived here and it’s forbidden! We ended up in the Roscosmos canteen, which was just as well.

Our afternoon at Roscosmos was very pleasant, filled with good discussions, pictures, congratulations, gifts, etc.

That evening, I took part in a Noyau créatif(creative nucleus) of Cirque du Soleil held in Montréal, then made a few phone calls since my objective was to settle all work-related issues during the next two days. This was a “last call” of sorts since I wouldn’t be speaking to my team until possibly a week after my return to earth. I’m well prepared in terms of physical, theoretical and technical training. It’s now time for me to prepare myself mentally. Everyone here tells me to rest well, so I followed their advice that night and had a good night’s sleep!

* * *

POST 72 | DAY 173 – SEPTEMBER 16, 2009

On Wednesday, September 16, we had a brief medical follow-up in the morning then met the medical heads to review the medical procedures with them.

That afternoon was another busy one for me: shooting of special images with my film crew, a final training on the various camera equipment with Marsel (also a professional photographer) from Space Adventures and with Alain, one of my cameramen, a long meeting with Fernand Rainville and many personal calls. Since I had been told that the pool in Baikonur wouldn’t be available, I also took this time to swim a few laps.

I finished the day with a teleconference meeting at 9:30 p.m. with Frank Devine (he was in the ISS, I was in one of the Star City buildings) to explain to him the segments that would involve his participation during the October 9th event.

My bags were all packed and I was ready for the big trip! I was filled with all sorts of emotions, ranging from relief to excitement.

# # #


Next month we’ll continue with “Departure for Baikonur” (September 2009, Pt 2), “Moving Stars and Earth for Water” (On Orbit), and finishing up with “Back on Earth – Mission Success!”

Stay tuned!