Malaysia's debut spaceflyer, the first female commander of the International Space Station and a veteran Russian cosmonaut are gearing up for their orbital mission this fall.

Malaysian orthopedic surgeon Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, 34, is training for a planned Oct. 10 launch towards the ISS with veteran NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson and cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko to kick off the 16th expedition to the orbital laboratory.

"It's really important to me to spur interest among all the Malaysian people," Shukor told reporters during a Monday press briefing at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. "But my focus has always been on schoolchildren."

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Chosen from a competitive field of 11,000, Shukor said he is proud to represent Malaysia in space as its first astronaut, or "angkasawan."

Whitson, the space station's first female commander, and Malenchenko are both veteran ISS flyers. Whitson flew in 2002 as an Expedition 5 flight engineer and NASA's first ISS science officer, while Malenchenko commanded Expedition 7 in 2003.

"It is going to be a very complicated and aggressive mission," said Whitson, adding that she hopes her role as commander will encourage young women to embrace science and mathematics. "But I think I've got a great team."

Busy mission ahead

Whitson and Malenchenko will join the third member of their crew, NASA astronaut Clayton Anderson, who is already aboard the ISS, for what is expected to be a packed flight of challenging station construction and crew swaps.

In late October, NASA plans to launch the shuttle Discovery's STS-120 mission and deliver Harmony, a connecting node that will serve as the attachment point for future international laboratories.

Discovery will also ferry veteran NASA astronaut Daniel Tani to replace Anderson — who will return with the STS-120 crew — as part of Expedition 16.

"It's going to be an extremely exciting time, a sort of moment of growth for the space station," Tani said of Expedition 16.

Another ISS crewmember, European Space Agency spaceflyer Leopold Eyharts, is due to replace Tani in December, when NASA hopes to launch the Atlantis orbiter and its STS-122 astronaut crew to deliver Europe's Columbus laboratory to the station.

NASA astronaut Garret Reisman, a first-time spaceflyer, is slated to round out the Expedition 16 crew in February 2008 during NASA's STS-123 shuttle mission aboard Endeavour.

That flight, slated for a Feb. 14 launch, will deliver the first component of a Japanese laboratory to the ISS along with a Canadian-built robot for use with the station's robotic arm.

"To participate and operate all this different hardware is going to be absolutely phenomenal," Reisman said of the new elements to be added to the ISS during his flight. "It's going to be wonderful."

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