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Malaysian Astronaut Set to Go Into Space

A crew that includes Malaysia's first astronaut and an American who will become the first woman to command the international space station prepared Monday for blastoff later this week.

The Soyuz-FG rocket is scheduled to blast off from the Central Asian steppe on Wednesday night to take Malaysia's Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, Peggy Whitson of Beaconsfield, Iowa, and Russian Yuri Malenchenko into orbit.

During his 12-day space trip, Shukor is to study of the effects of microgravity and space radiation on cells and microbes, as well as experiments with proteins for a potential HIV vaccine.

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The rocket — adorned with a Malaysian flag and coat of arms and carrying a Soyuz TMA-11 spacecraft — was moved Monday to the launch pad from its assembly site at the Baikonur cosmodrome, which Russia rents from Kazakhstan.

"It's too exciting to be cold," said Shankini Dovaisingam, a Malaysian aerospace engineer observing the final preparations. "It's amazing to see the Malaysian flag on a Soyuz spaceship."

The mission coincides with the last days of Ramadan, the holy month when Muslims fast from dawn until sundown, but Malaysian clerics decreed that Shukor will be excused from fasting while in space.

Shukor's religion also requires that he face Mecca for prayer but clerics decided that the exact location matters only for the beginning of the prayer ritual.

Shukor, 35, will bring a "symbolic" load of Malaysian food to the space station, said Zulkeffeli Mat Jusoh, a program director for the Malaysian space program.

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.

Shukor is to return to Earth on Oct. 21 with two Russian members of the current space station crew.

Whitson and Malenchenko will stay on as the station's new crew, and will be joined in October by U.S. astronaut Daniel Tani, who is arriving with the shuttle Discovery. Tani will replace fellow American Clayton Anderson, who has been at the station since June.