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The man who plans to become the first circus clown in space, and who may be among the last of the space tourists, was greeted 
by a raucous crowds of friends and family on Wednesday as he prepared to blast off for the International Space Station.
Guy Laliberte and two other astronauts were cheered outside their hotel in the Central Asian steppes by supporters, many singing songs and wearing red clown noses.
As Laliberte emerged from a Baikonur Cosmodrome facility where last-minute suit pressure checks are performed, Laliberte he put on a bulbous red clown nose blew kisses to supporters and held both hands over his heart in a mime's show of affection.
Laliberte's enthusiasm seemed to infect others during the normally low-key launch preparations. As the crew members climbed up the ladder into the Soyuz capsule, Russian cosmonaut Maxim Surayev began singing the pop song "Mammy Blue," and Laliberte and US astronaut Jeffrey Williams joined him.
Among those cheering were Laliberte's partner, former model Claudia Barilla, and the Quebec singing star Garou.
Laliberte, the 50-year-old Canadian billionaire who founded Cirque du Soleil, was scheduled to lift off aboard a Soyuz spacecraft later Wednesday with Surayev and Williams for a two-day trip to the orbiting laboratory.
Williams, a two-time space traveller who recently became a grandfather, and Surayev plan to stay in orbit for 169 days, while Laliberte is to return to Earth after 12 days in space.
Laliberte paid $35 million for his flight. He has a 95% stake in Cirque du Soleil, a circus arts and theater performance company that turned 25 this year.
The entertainment tycoon has said he will try to persuade his fellow spacemen to don red clown noses; he is taking nine of them into orbit.
He has also promised to tickle other station crew members as they sleep, and to help publicize the world's growing shortage of clean water during the flight.
Surayev has said he plans to bring a plush toy lion that will hang in front of him after takeoff to signal the beginning of weightlessness. His preteen daughters kept the toy under their pillows to "make sure that the lion smells of home for the next six months."
Williams has said he will have a picture of his family and infant grandson, born only a month ago.
The Soyuz team is scheduled to continue construction of the space station, where in-orbit work began in 1998. Six shuttle flights remain to wrap it up. The station has already become the largest artificial satellite, weighing more than 710,000 pounds and orbiting the Earth at 220 miles high.
The station has cost more than $100 billion, paid by the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan and the 18-nation European Space Agency.
Laliberte may be one of the last private visitors to the space station for several years as NASA retires its shuttle program and turns to the Russian space agency to ferry U.S. astronauts to the orbiting lab, crowding out places for tourists.
Eric Anderson, the chief executive officer of Space Adventures, said his company will try to make sure that at least three tourists get to visit the space station each year, despite the shuttle's scheduled retirement.
"I keep hearing that space tourism is ending and it never seems to be true," said Anderson.
One way to keep the program alive, Anderson said, would be to increase the number of Russian Soyuz missions.


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