BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan – 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.
The Soyuz-FG rocket lifted off on schedule at 1322 GMT (9:22 a.m. EDT), soaring into a darkening sky above the Kazakh steppe.
It was topped by a spacecraft that is to deliver U.S. astronaut Peggy Whitson, veteran Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko and Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, a Malaysian physician, to the orbital station in about two days.
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Whitson, of Beaconsfield, Iowa, is to be the first woman to command the international space station.
Shukor, a 35-year-old orthopedic surgeon, is to spend about 10 days on the station as the first Malaysian in space, performing experiments involving diseases and the effects of microgravity and space radiation on cells and genes.
"I feel great. I just can't wait to go up for the Malaysian people," he told reporters as he boarded a bus to take him down to the launch pad.
His parents watched the liftoff from an observation area, praying and in tears.
Shukor is the ninth Muslim in space, but the first from Malaysia.
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.
His religion also requires that he face Mecca for prayer — a direction that will change as the craft orbits the Earth — but clerics decided that the exact location matters only for the beginning of the prayer ritual.
Shukor told reporters Tuesday at the Russian-leased Baikonur cosmodrome that his trip will be an inspiration for his southeast Asian nation and for Muslims around the world.
"It's a small step for me, but a great leap for the Malaysian people," he said, rephrasing Neil Armstrong's legendary words after the Apollo landing on the Moon.
Malaysian newspapers on Wednesday devoted several pages and published special pullouts to the mission.
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 will stay on as the station's new crew, and will be joined later this month 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, and who will return to Earth on the shuttle.
Cosmonauts Fyodor Yurchikhin and Oleg Kotov are due to return to Earth along with Shukor before the shuttle Discovery arrives.