Guy Laliberte’s Poetic Social Mission
PART 6: “Departure for Baikonur”


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. In Part 5, “T-30 Days and Counting”, Guy rushes to complete his training with only a few precious days remaining until lift-off. And now we continue with September’s logs, and Guy’s departure to the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Russia’s launch facilities located in the desert steppe of Kazakhstan.


POST 73 | DAY 174 – SEPTEMBER 17, 2009

We started the day with an official ceremony that involved a series of champagne toasts with the astronauts and their family, the main instructors and the Star City officers. Some were drinking vodka, but I stayed away from it! The official photo was taken in front of one of the Star City monuments with members of the press until it was time to leave for the airport – escorted by military police! There were two planes: one for the main crew and certain officers, and another for the backup crew, my coordinator and part of my film crew. The flight lasted about 3 hours during which more vodka glasses were raised to this and to that! Luckily, I was able to discreetly escape for a little power nap on one of the couches. Phew! As soon as we landed, we were greeted by the Baikonur officers. Members of the press were also present and more pictures were taken. We then waited in the bus for the passengers of the second plane to land and get on their bus. These buses will be transporting us during our entire stay here and they are specially designed to meet our needs (for example, there is an air inlet for our spacesuits). We checked into our rooms and barely had time to unpack our luggage that it was already time for dinner. During the meal, we were also given information on what to expect here. I then went back to my little room and slept for 8 hours. My, that felt good!

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POST 74 | DAY 175 – SEPTEMBER 18, 2009

After our breakfast, the buses brought us to the area where our Soyuz has been assembled. The atmosphere there was a bit odd, very much like a hospital, with everyone wearing medical face masks and lab coats. (There’s no fooling around with germs!) We put our training suits on and sat down in a little room while one of the officers explained to us, on the other side of a glass panel, what our activities would be in Baikonur. Members of the press were also present.

First, we (the main crew) were led to a large hangar where all the dismantled pieces of the Soyuz and the habitation module are kept. We slowly started discovering our cabin, which would be our new home for a little while. This was a very emotional moment. Even more so watching Max. He’s been training for this moment for 12 years and he was like a little boy who’s finally received the Christmas gift he’s been wanting for so long!

We were briefed by the person in charge of the Soyuz, who handed us a list of things to do. Max and Jeff first went downstairs to verify a few things, then all three of us went into our Soyuz with our checklist in hand. We were glancing at each other like little boys, so happy to be living these moments.

When it was time for lunch, it was the backup team’s turn to go through the same operations. After lunch, we performed a first leak check of our spacesuit, and then a second one, with our spacesuits on this time. We tested our seats, verified a few things on our checklist, then the backup team took over to repeat the same steps. While they were doing this, we had meetings concerning our payload, the telephones, etc.

During all this, our doctors follow us wherever we go and keep anyone from coming into contact with us. An odd little group of chaperons! At least, they let us alone for our 2 hours in the banya (both crews, without Barbara!). We received such a lashing that Jeff and I still bear the scars! We then had dinner in the canteen, the only place where we’re allowed to eat. The others eat elsewhere and must have their temperature taken every morning before coming into contact with us.

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POST 75 | DAY 176 – SEPTEMBER 19, 2009

Today we were entitled to a late breakfast, followed by the flag-raising ceremony with local authorities. It was a solemn moment during which both crews raised their flags, as well as the Kazakhstan (Baikonur) flag. For our crew, this meant Russia for Maxim, United States for Jeff and Canada for me. We took a few pictures and had a brief press conference.

I’ve started my training and my medical: a 30-minute tilt-table test along with the famous rotating chair—EVERY day (my worst nightmare!).

In the afternoon, we continued training by going over each step (flight plan, safety, etc.). Our doctors also explained to us why we have been put in quarantine and what they expect from us. Each of us submitted our wish list (more fruit in the morning, being able to bring our own bottle of wine at dinner, seeing our family before lift-off, etc.) then promised that we would faithfully follow their instructions. And so, that evening, we drank a nice little bottle of wine!

After dinner, I talked with my oldest son who told me how well he did at his go-kart race. He was thrilled (and so was his dad!) to have won his first race of the year. I was very proud of him. The doctors added levers at the foot of my bed so that I can sleep upside down and without a pillow. It took me a while to fall asleep because the blood was rushing to my head. I also woke up a few times with the feeling that I had turned over in my bed. I’m so glad I’m not a bat!

Oh, by the way, I forgot to tell you! They change our bed sheets every day here and I was quite surprised to discover that, 2 days out of 3, I got exactly the same sheets as in Star City. You’d think that there’s only one store in Russia!

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POST 76 | DAY 177 – SEPTEMBER 20, 2009

Today was a very special day. My father, Gaston, turned 80! Happy birthday dearest dad! I woke up that morning feeling slightly stuffed up, which worried me. The doctor reassured me by explaining that this was a normal consequence of sleeping upside down. Phew! My day was relatively quiet so I took this opportunity to work out and do some interviews with my film crew. Each time they come and see me now, they have to get their temperature taken, wear a mask and keep a distance of at least 2 metres. Not the warmest of get-togethers, but quite amusing! I had another relaxing sauna in the evening and a good glass of wine. I tried to listen to how I was feeling deep inside and noted that what made me happy was my ability to concentrate and prepare myself mentally. And even though everything I’m living right now is very stimulating, I feel very calm and at peace. Jeff, Max and many others never hesitate to share information with me and I’m all ears when they talk. They tell me to walk a lot, eat well, rest well and so on. During my spare time, I watch films and documentaries on space to fully absorb myself in this environment and atmosphere. I’m so very much looking forward to the coming week. I’ve been told that it’ll be a relatively quiet one since it’ll really only get busy starting Friday. It’s crazy to think that in 9 days, I’ll be taking off. I truly am living a dream! What’s more, in such a desert as Baikonur, I’m reminded of the importance of water once again. And so, fulfilling this dream will take me a step further in reaching another objective: raising everyone’s awareness about this precious resource.

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POST 77 | DAY 180 – SEPTEMBER 23, 2009

Monday to Wednesday (September 21 to 23): Our days at Baikonur blend into one another, as we fall into a light little routine for the week. In general, we eat breakfast at 10:00 a.m., followed by an information/review meeting and video presentation. Max and I do 30 minutes of tilt table and rotating chair. Since the rotating chair doesn’t agree with me, I was able to negotiate with my doctor to do it only every two days. Yay!

An hour a day, we have a signing session to autograph pictures and posters. I have never signed so many autographs in my entire life; boy, I don’t envy the stars, not one bit! I honestly think I’ve signed thousands of them. It’s part of the local tradition, whereby people like to collect pictures, posters, badges, flags, etc. It’s also a way for us to thank everyone involved for all their support and hard work. Then, we usually have a bit of free time to work out and go for a stroll in the garden (which is highly recommended to us). We wrap up with a steam bath (bania) around 6:00 p.m., a little game of Russian pyramid and a beer. We come back for dinner and everyone enjoys the good wine I brought from my personal wine cellar! We have some great discussions all together (main crew and back-up). Still, we have to eat quickly because we’re on a strict schedule, with everything timed to the minute!

In the evenings, my routine is to read La Presse and Le Journal de Montréal and to surf the web to find out what’s happening in the world. I also do interviews with the media and my documentary crew, and I take advantage of my time alone to read all the magazines I get and don’t have time for during training. Of course, I also have work sessions with Fernand and make a few calls to make sure that the event on October 9 will run smoothly—everything seems to be falling into place.

The weather is nice and warm during the day and cooler at night. As you know, we are holed up in a specific hotel with all the support staff. On site, there is a small bar, ping-pong table, and garden with a view of the steps and river at the very end of the grounds—it’s peaceful. From time to time, you can hear a dog barking, but up to now, I’ve only heard a mosquito buzzing in my room once. I’m slowly working my way through the 3rd season of Heroes; I usually fall asleep while watching a show. Every night, I wake up feeling as though I’ve been swivelling in my bed. But I don’t dream of space aliens kidnapping me or hiding under my bed, so I can at least be thankful for that! 😉

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POST 78 | DAY 181 – SEPTEMBER 24, 2009

We had our media day today. Journalists were invited to spend a very busy day watching how quarantined astronauts live (with our doctors standing close by, of course!). As a result, they got a peek of our meetings, video presentations, simulations and so on. It actually gave me the opportunity to do a docking on the simulator as my two shipmates watched attentively and proffered sound advice. The journalists then looked on as we played pool and ping-pong, and saw us agonize through the tilt table and rotating chair.

In the afternoon, we planted a tree along the garden path—a tradition that started with Yuri Gagarin. Since then, every cosmonaut has planted a tree before launching into space. I planted one made of clown noses, to add a little colour to the path! We then had a series of interviews with the press. All in all, our day was packed, but nothing out of the ordinary. We ended the day with a BBQ (with both crews). I don’t know if it’s our fresh astronaut blood or the smell of the shashlik, but there was a mosquito infestation as the sun set. Maybe our doctors had something to do with it. . . Either way, it worked! We were back in our room and to our regular routine in no time!

A little anecdote about the rotating chair: This week, I told my doctors just how deeply I hate this exercise. I don’t understand why they insist on putting me through something that leaves me feeling miserable and sick. It won’t stop me from being sick in space, so why even bother with this on earth? I was told that I need to be prepared mentally, but believe me, this exercise does nothing to lift one’s spirits! To my great pleasure and relief, they’ve taken the rotating chair off my schedule.

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POST 79 | DAY 182 – SEPTEMBER 25, 2009

Friday, September 25, was just a regular quiet day. On the other hand, Saturday, September 26 was a big day. We woke up early to visit our capsule for the second time and do a final check. It started with explanations of the experiments we will be conducting in space. We had more discussions with the committee and the traditional drink with the directors. We also enjoyed little cookies, little cakes and little sandwiches. We then went to the huge building next door, the one that houses all the parts of our Soyuz spacecraft. It’s pretty impressive! The parts are now assembled, but the Soyuz itself is still in three pieces. Everything is packed and ready to go! We also took the traditional museum tour given by the museum director, and we signed the official books. We got to visit Yuri Gagarin’s old house, as well as the houses where other cosmonauts lived in quarantine at the time. We ended the day brilliantly with our last bania for a while (boohoo!). . . so we made the most of it!

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POST 80 | DAY 184 – SEPTEMBER 27, 2009

We all woke up very excited because our families, children and friends were set to arrive today. And since we are taking off in only three days, we are also in the final sprint to finish all our paperwork. The excitement in the air was palpable!

To prepare them for their arrival, we started with a video of my training bloopers, which generated quite a few chuckles.

Afterwards, from behind the glass, I had the opportunity to see all my guests (about 50 people in all, including my family). Everyone’s skin was a bit pale, showing their fatigue after the long trip, but they were all sporting big smiles anyway! I was really happy to see them, and their support of my adventure warmed my heart.

The heartbreaking side of this experience is to watch my children who want to give me a kiss, be in my arms, but not being able to due to the glass pane between us. But I was happy to at least see and talk to them and the atmosphere was quite cheerful.

However, I got to see my 3 oldest outside, with my love and Julie Payette, but with a good 10 feet of distance between us. Unfortunately, they would not allow me to see the other two because they are too young, therefore more likely to transmit a virus. Later, Julie returned to the hotel with the children and Claudia and I enjoyed a tête-à-tête in the cosmonauts’ private room. We had a drink, we talked … it was a beautiful moment.

Both crews then returned to our quarantine quarters to polish off our bottles of wine, our hearts full of emotion. Blast-off is just around the corner!

As I told you earlier, I have had quite a bit of time since I came to Baikonur to go through my stuff; including reading the comments and questions you’ve posted on my blog since June 4th!

During my months of training at Star City, I tried to do as much as possible in a day. I knew that there were a lot of you following my adventures on the blog but unfortunately didn’t have time to read everything and especially to reply to everyone. These comments come from friends, family members, people I’ve met over the summer, and people I don’t know and probably won’t ever meet, but you all have one thing in common; in your own way, you all tell me what you think, you encourage me, ask me questions and, above all, confirm that I have made the right decision in believing that with an idea, you can touch people and raise their awareness.

That is what struck me most when reading your remarks. You have followed my stories for many long weeks now; with these stories—sometimes funny, sometimes serious—I wanted you to “train” alongside me, and you have been a part of my adventure with your encouragement, your questions and your creative, inspired enthusiasm. You have written poems, songs, funny little notes and fitting remarks, and I thank you most sincerely for your generosity. Support is more than just a financial affair: often it is the little things that count.

I’m pleased to see that lots of closet poets have found their voice and artists have found inspiration. I have received messages from mums who tell me that the subjects of space and water have given them the opportunity to discuss things such as sharing, poverty and sickness with their children. I am glad that the subject of my project’s relevance has inspired “mini-debates” among people. I agree that questions should be raised about the cost of this project, the intentions behind it and the results that it will bring. So many questions that I have indeed asked myself.

You have taken the time to read what I’ve had to say, to write to me and to send words of encouragement. For me, it is important that I now, in turn, read what you have to say and give you a reply. It would be impossible for me to reply to you all individually, but as I believe in the community spirit, I’m going send a message to all of you together!

When I founded ONE DROP, it was (or rather, it still is) desperately urgent to do something to protect water. Our objectives target action on the ground, educational projects (such as AQUA, which several cities have expressed an interest in) and raising awareness.

I could have done all that in traditional philanthropic ways or even step by step as we did with Cirque du Soleil, but we don’t have 25 years to save the cause of water! And besides, I wanted a different sort of foundation, something that sets us apart and incorporates art. ONE DROP is already acting in practical terms, but in the project of going into space, I saw an innovative opportunity, reflecting the image of Cirque du Soleil and my own image, too. Of course there is an element of risk, but that’s in my nature—and taking risks is an integral part of my company’s culture as well.

Right from the start, I knew that such a project wouldn’t get unanimous support, but I was willing to take the chance. And anyhow, I wanted to go into space! The stars seemed to be perfectly aligned so that I could take my gang at Cirque and ONE DROP along with me. What’s more, the international coverage we are getting at the moment seems to support the fact that it’s the right thing to do; I wouldn’t have been able to reach so many people so quickly by doing things the traditional way.

Beyond the audacity of the project, I know that this mission is upsetting some of you from an ecological point of view. I am already committed to respecting the environment in my everyday life, so of course I was worried about offsetting my carbon footprint for my flight into space.

Celebrating the 25th anniversary of Cirque du Soleil in the same year was just perfect timing! I make no bones about it: of course this project gives the company high visibility as an events organizer. This free, worldwide event is in step with the humanitarian journey already embarked on by Cirque du Soleil.

In fact, 1% of the company’s income goes towards helping young people: Cirque du Monde, our status as donor to La TOHU and our assistance in the St-Michel neighbourhood—not to mention our support for young artists. As far as I’m concerned, this $35 M is another investment, one that has led to interesting partnership requests for ONE DROP.
Will the end result be what we hoped for? In the short term, there are encouraging signs. In the medium and long term, we’ll have to wait and see! However, I believe that the spin-off effects will make things easier for other projects out there that support the cause of water.

Of course, it is thanks to my own financial situation that I have been able to experience such an adventure. And yes, I am also making a personal dream come true through this mission. I’m having an enriching experience with a fascinating community. And from your feedback, I am so happy to see that the drops are gathering together to create a magnificent wave!

Not so long ago, I was counting the months, weeks, days, now it’s just a matter of hours…. and I am ready!

I don’t know how I’m going to be able to continue my blog up there, but I’ll do my best. In any case, rest assured that you will get to hear all about my life in space!

Your support has given me plenty of propulsion energy, so Soyuz TMA-16 should have no trouble at all lifting off! I send my very best wishes to you all. I hope you always continue to dream and have the pleasure of reaching your stars, too.

P.S. By the way, one way you can help me achieve my goal of making as many people aware about the cause of water as possible is to spread the word to everyone you know and make sure you are all tuned into the event on October 9th! Together, let’s make the hugest wave possible!

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POST 81 | DAY 185 – SEPTEMBER 28, 2009

I was up at 5:00 a.m. so I went on the Internet and read the comments readers had left me on my mission log. Then, I had the usual quiet day: breakfast at 10:00 a.m., a signing session, a tilt-table test with Max and so on.

At around 7:00 that morning, my guests attended the rollout of the Soyuz and sent me text messages on how spectacular it was. I was happy for them since the main crew couldn’t assist (but the backup team did!).

During the evening, my guests called me again while they were taking part in a typically Kazakh event. Their comments made me laugh and I rapidly caught on that the vodka was having quite an effect on them! It was great fun getting phone calls from my gang all day, describing their activities and everything they were living.

At 6:30 p.m., I spent 30 minutes with Claudia and my brother Jean in the garden. Then my 3 oldest sons and Julie Payette joined us, along with the Max’s wife, Jeff’s wife, and the kids. And guess what we ate? Delicious shashlik, of course! An army of mosquitoes attacked us once again but this time, we were well equipped with the right products… under our doctors’ strict surveillance! We had a wonderful evening, all thanks to them by the way.

At 8:30 p.m., the kids went back to their hotel with Jean, and I was allowed another 30 minutes with Claudia. What a great day this was.

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POST 82 | DAY 186 – SEPTEMBER 29, 2009

Today I woke up at 4:30 a.m. with a horrible backache, as if all the tension had built up right there. A good shower lessened the pain a bit and, with the crew, I presented myself in front of the big bosses for the commission’s last report. This is the final stage in the flight approval process and it took place behind a glass panel. (We wore our ties, of course!)

On the topic of ties, during the first official event we attended, I had told Max and Jeff about my habit of “stealing” the ties of people I meet during my travels. I asked them to give me the tie they would be wearing during our last official meeting so that I could add them to my collection… and they did so good-heartedly! This was really nice of them.

After this meeting, we gave a press conference for a number of journalists on the other side of the glass panel. We answered quite a few questions, with everyone in good spirits, as usual.

Russian cosmonauts have another tradition as well: watching White Sun of the Desert with both crews the day before the departure. To add a little something to the screening, Max modified the poster by putting our faces on those of the 3 main actors. We even had our personalized T-shirts! This was quite a touch of humour that made everyone laugh.

Once the film was over, a huge lunch awaited us. We could see that a special effort had been made to have us taste all sorts of special dishes.

And I was able to visit all my kids outside. I sat in the grass, they stayed on the street, and we talked. Afterwards, Claudia and I were granted one hour together, so we sat on the picnic table and talked. These were beautiful moments filled with emotion.

Max, Jeff and I had to be in bed by 8:30 that night since we had to get up at 4:30 the next morning… the big day!!!

Thanks again for your good energy!

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

Stay tuned!