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Circus tycoon clowns around after space docking

 Canadian billionaire Guy Laliberte jokes after putting on his space suit at Baikonur cosmodrome September 30, 2009. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov - Reuters
Canadian billionaire Guy Laliberte jokes after putting on his space suit at Baikonur cosmodrome September 30, 2009. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov
— image credit: Reuters

By Aydar Buribayev

KOROLYOV, Russia (Reuters) - Canadian circus billionaire Guy Laliberte, dubbed the first clown in space, arrived at the International Space Station in a Russian space craft on Friday on a 10-day trip that cost over $35 million.

Laliberte, a former fire-breather and founder of the Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil, donned a red clown's nose and waved to his wife and children in a video link-up from the space station to mission control in the town of Korolyov near Moscow.

"I'm adapting pretty good ... but I ain't staying six months," he said to laughter from his colleagues who will each spend several months onboard the cramped outpost.

Laliberte plans to use the trip to draw attention to the importance of access to clean water on Earth and is due to hold a two-hour webcast on October 9 featuring former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, Irish rock group U2 and others.

The 50-year-old is worth an estimated $2.5 billion, having turned a passion for acrobatics and circus acts into a global entertainment empire.

He paid more than $35 million for the privilege of becoming Earth's seventh space tourist, blasting off from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Wednesday.

A camera on board the Soyuz module showed grainy black and white pictures of the space station slowly coming into view on a giant screen at mission control. "We have contact," a Russian official said, prompting applause from watching relatives.

Laliberte climbed through the hatch into the space station with the Russian cosmonaut and U.S. astronaut who accompanied him. They took turns embracing the six-man station crew before lining up to talk to relatives via a video link.

Laliberte is due to return to earth on October 10.

SPACE TOURISM IN DOUBT

The expansion of the station's resident crew from three to six has reduced the number of available seats for would-be tourists on scheduled Soyuz rocket flights.

Space Adventures, the company which markets the flights, says it does not know when the Russian space agency will next have a free seat to take a space tourist.

Russia has borne the brunt of sending crews and cargo to the multinational station since the U.S. Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated on re-entry in 2003, killing its crew of seven.

The Soyuz workload will increase further with the expected retirement of U.S. space agency NASA's shuttle fleet in late 2010 or early 2011.

Russia will stop offering tourist flights to the space station if the United States halts shuttle flights in 2011, the head of Russia's Roskosmos space agency, Anatoly Perminov, said at a press conference after the docking.

The agency is, however, considering carrying tourists into orbit on specially chartered rockets, he said.

(Writing by Matt Robinson and Conor Humphries; editing by Elizabeth Fullerton)

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