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BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan (Reuters) - Canadian circus billionaire Guy Laliberte blasted off in a Russian Soyuz spaceship from Kazakhstan on Wednesday to become the world's seventh space tourist.
The 50-year-old former fire-breather and founder of the Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil gave the thumbs-up after the Soyuz TMA-16 spaceship blasted into clear blue skies in a faultless launch at 0714 GMT (3:14 a.m. EDT) from the Baikonur cosmodrome on the Kazakh steppe.
The three-man crew is due to dock with the International Space Station (ISS) on October 2.
Laliberte has paid more than $35 million for the epic journey, in which he plans a webcast linking 14 cities across the world to draw attention to the importance of access to clean water on Earth.
"He's just said 'Super!', he's very happy," Russian cosmonaut and crew member Maxim Suraev said of Laliberte shortly after take-off. Laliberte wore a clown's red nose as he boarded a bus taking him to the spaceship, and a toy lion belonging to Suraev's daughter bounced from a string in the capsule.
Laliberte, who turned a passion for acrobatics and circus acts into a global entertainment empire, described his trip as "the first poetic social mission in space."
"I needed it to be the right time and for the right purpose," he was quoted as saying by flight organizer Space Adventures. "This is the time. And the purpose is clear: to raise awareness on water issues to humankind on planet earth."
The webcast will be carried live on www.onedrop.org on October 9. Laliberte is due to return on October 11.
Laliberte owns 95 percent of Cirque du Soleil, which he founded in 1994, and Forbes estimates his fortune at $2.5 billion. His flight companions, Suraev and U.S. astronaut Jeffrey Williams, will temporarily join an expanded crew of six aboard the multi-billion-dollar space outpost.
Russia has borne the brunt of sending crews and cargo to the multinational ISS since the U.S. Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated on re-entry in 2003, killing its crew of seven.
The expansion in ISS resident crew from three to six has cut the number of available seats for would-be tourists on scheduled Soyuz rocket flights. The Soyuz workload will increase further with the expected retirement of the U.S. space agency's shuttle fleet in late 2010 or early 2011.
Space Adventures president Eric Anderson said hiring a dedicated Soyuz rocket from the Russian space agency is one of several options being discussed, but nothing has been agreed.
"We are in flux," Anderson told Reuters. "There will be access to Space, it's just a matter of when and how."
In March, U.S. billionaire Charles Simonyi became the first space tourist to make the epic journey twice.
Additional reporting by Aydar Buribaev at Star City outside Moscow and Conor Humphries; Writing by Matt Robinson; editing by Mark Trevelyan