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New crew blasts off for space station

A Russian rocket blasted off from a launch facility in Kazakhstan on Wednesday, carrying a Russian, an American and a Malaysian headed to the international space station.
American Peggy Whitson, right, commander of the international space station's Expedition 16, and Russian crew member Yuri Malenchenko bid farewell just before Wednesday's launch of their Soyuz spaceship from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.Mikhail Metzel / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A Russian spacecraft soared from the Kazakh steppe toward the international space station Wednesday, carrying a Malaysian, a Russian, and Peggy Whitson, the American who will become the first woman to command the orbital outpost.

The Soyuz-FG rocket lifted off on schedule, rising into a darkening sky over the Russian-operated Baikonur launch facility. It was topped by a spacecraft that is to deliver Whitson, veteran Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko and Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, a Malaysian physician, to the space station Friday.

Applause broke out among space officials and other onlookers after the Soyuz TMA-11 spacecraft shed its rocket stages and entered orbit.

"Now they are stars in space, with their training, and with their beautiful machine, they will do good," former space station astronaut Michael Fincke said.

Whitson, of Beaconsfield, Iowa, is making her second trip to the station.

A day before the launch, a Russian space official presented her with a traditional Kazakh whip to "manage her crew."

But Fincke said Whitson, 47, would not need it to lead a successful mission.

"She inspires people," he said.

Sheikh Muszaphar, a 35-year-old orthopedic surgeon, is to spend about 10 days on the station, performing experiments involving diseases and the effects of microgravity and space radiation on cells and genes.

His parents watched the liftoff from an observation area, praying and in tears.

"I'm happy for my country, for Russia, for the United States and everybody," said his father, Sheikh Mustapha Shukor.

Sheikh Muszaphar is not the first Muslim in space — Saudi Prince Sultan bin Salman joined the crew of the shuttle Discovery in 1985. Nevertheless, Malaysian newspapers on Wednesday devoted several pages and published special pullouts about the mission, which coincides with the last days of Ramadan, the holy month when Muslims fast daily from dawn until sundown.

Sheikh Muszaphar has vowed to keep fasting and praying in space, even though Malaysian clerics said he could postpone the fast until he returns to Earth.

He took vacuum-packed Malaysian food, including skewered chicken, banana rolls, fermented soybean cakes and ginger jelly, to mark Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan this weekend, in space.

On Tuesday, he told reporters at Baikonur that his trip will be an inspiration for his southeast Asian nation as well as to other Muslims all over the world.

"It's a small step for me, but a great leap for the Malaysian people," he said, rephrasing Neil Armstrong's famous words after the 1969 Apollo landing on the Moon.

The $25 million agreement for a Malaysian astronaut to fly to space was negotiated in 2003 along with a $900 million deal for Malaysia to buy 18 Russian fighter jets.

Whitson and Malenchenko, 45, are to replace two of the station's current crew, cosmonauts Fyodor Yurchikhin and Oleg Kotov, who are due to return to Earth on Oct. 21 long with Sheikh Muszaphar.

The expedition commanded by Whitson has "two very critical space walks to do" related to efforts to expand the station, which will have six-member crews starting in 2009, said Steven Lindsey, NASA's chief astronaut.

Lindsey praised Russia's Soyuz rocket as a reliable workhorse.

"The system was designed 50 years ago, but the design is very elegant," he said. "It does the job in the simplest way."

Whitson and Malenchenko, who is on his second voyage to the station and commanded Russia's Mir space station more than a decade ago, are to be joined later this month by astronaut Daniel Tani, who is arriving with the shuttle Discovery. Tani is to replace fellow American Clayton Anderson, who has been at the station since June.

The American space program has depended on Russia for cargo and astronaut delivery to the space station since the 2003 explosion of the shuttle Columbia.

Lindsey said that the U.S. space shuttle program would go out of service by 2010 and that he hopes it will be replaced by 2014. In the meantime, "We'll be flying Soyuz," he said.