Source AP ©

Russian booster rocket rolled out for launch of crew to space station

Almost everything is prepared for the launch of a three-man crew, including Malaysia 's first astronaut, to the international space station. Russian booster rocket was rolled out to its launch pad at the Baikonur cosmodrome Monday.

The Soyuz-FG rocket with the Soyuz TMA-11 spacecraft attached to it will blast off into space from the Central Asian steppe on Wednesday night carrying Malaysian Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, Russian Yuri Malenchenko and American Peggy Whitson. Whitson will become the first woman to command the international space station.

Shukor's 12-day mission is due to include the study of the effects of microgravity and space radiation on cells and microbes, as well as experiments with proteins for a potential HIV vaccine.

The gray and white rocket with the Malaysian flag and coat of arms was moved to the launch pad on train rails from its assembly site at the cosmodrome, which Russia rents from Kazakhstan.

"It's too exciting to be cold," said Shankini Dovaisingam, a Malaysian aerospace engineer clad in a warm coat as she looked at the spaceship looming in the pre-dawn light. "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.

Another issue that raised controversy about Shukor's religious duties was his need to face Mecca for prayer as the space station rotates around the Earth, but the clerics decided that the exact location matters only for the beginning of the prayer ritual.

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

The US$25 million (EUR17.7 million) agreement for a Malaysian astronaut to fly to space was negotiated in 2003 along with a US$900 million (EUR637 million) deal for Malaysia to buy 18 Russian fighter jets.

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

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