Astronaut Trio Rockets Toward Space Station
A Russian Soyuz rocket launches the Expedition 16 crew and Malaysia's first astronaut toward the International Space Station on Oct. 10, 2007 from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
Credit: NASA TV.

A Russian Soyuz rocket roared into orbit Wednesday carrying Malaysia's first spaceflyer and a veteran astronaut team on a tricky mission to build up the International Space Station (ISS).

Space station commander Peggy Whitson -- the first woman ever to lead an ISS mission -- launched into space alongside veteran cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko and Malaysian astronaut Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor. Their Soyuz TMA-11 spacecraft rocketed into orbit at 9:22 a.m. EDT (1322 GMT), though it was just after sunset at their Baikonur Cosmodrome launch site on the steppes of Kazakhstan.

Whitson, with Malenchenko as flight engineer, plan to host up to three visiting shuttle crews and a series of rotating crewmembers during their six-month mission.

"I'm really looking forward to it," Whitson told reporters in a prelaunch press conference of her busy Expedition 16 mission. "'I'm confident in our ability to accomplish all our tasks because I like a challenge."

A new connecting module, the European Space Agency's Columbus laboratory, the first piece of Japan's three-segment Kibo laboratory and a robotic arm addition are slated to arrive during Expedition 16. Europe's first unmanned cargo ship, dubbed Jules Verne, is also due at the ISS during the mission.

"Historically speaking, this has got to be one of the pinnacles of the program," NASA ISS program manager Mike Suffredini said Tuesday from Baikonur on NASA TV. "I was talking to Peggy earlier and she's chomping at the bit."

Whitson and Malenchenko will replace the station's current Expedition 15 commander Fyodor Yurchikhin and flight engineer Oleg Kotov during a nine-day crew swap once they dock at the ISS on Friday. NASA astronaut Clayton Anderson, currently aboard the space station, will stay on for the first stage of Expedition 16.

"We're really looking forward to seeing them in just a few days," Whitson said.

Yurchikhin and Kotov will return to Earth on Oct. 21 after completing a six-month spaceflight. Shukor land with the Expedition 15 crew after his own 11-day spaceflight, during which he plans to perform a series of experiments and observe the Earth. Shukor said he was honored to be chosen from the initial 11,000 applicants to serve as Malaysia's first astronaut, or "angkasawan."

"I am ready to go to space," he said in a prelaunch briefing.

Shukor, a 35-year-old orthopedic surgeon, is flying to the ISS as part of a deal between Malaysia and Russia to purchase Russian-built military jets. In addition to his experiments, Shukor is bringing traditional Malaysian items and food to the space station and hopes to practice his Muslim faith while in orbit during the final days of the holy month of Ramadan.

"Being a Muslim and going into space is a big responsibility for me, not only for Malaysian people but also to Muslims all over the world," he said. "I'm not sure how, but I'm sure I'll find a way to pray and fast in space, and I'll come back and share it."

Crew swap ahead

Shukor and the Expedition 16 crew are due to dock at the ISS Friday at 10:52 a.m. EDT (1452 GMT), with Malenchenko serving as Soyuz commander during the two-day spaceflight.

As the three spaceflyers launched into orbit, seven other astronauts trained for their own spaceflight. The seven-astronaut crew of NASA's STS-120 mission rehearsed plans for an Oct. 23 launch aboard Discovery at the agency's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The 14-day mission, led by female shuttle commander and veteran astronaut Pamela Melroy, will deliver the Harmony connecting node to the ISS and lay the foundation for future international laboratories. The shuttle flight marks the first time two spacecraft commanded by female astronauts will fly at the same time.

"We're very excited about that," Melroy told reporters Tuesday. "In fact, the only problem with Peggy's launch is that we're going to be strapping in so we won't be able to watch it live."

But before Discovery's astronauts can launch toward the ISS, the Expedition 16 crew must take control of the orbital laboratory. The Expedition 15 astronauts have spent the last few weeks preparing for their relief crew's arrival and watched a live video broadcast of today's successful launch.

Anderson gave two thumbs and a wide grin to video cameras aboard the ISS after the liftoff. He will return to Earth later this month during the STS-120 mission, which will bring the first of three new Expedition 16 crewmembers to the space station during each of the upcoming shuttle flights.

During a prelaunch news conference, Whitson received a commemorative whip "for the men to remember that you?re the boss," according to the gift's presenter. All four of Expedition 16's rotating crewmembers -- Anderson, NASA astronaut Daniel Tani, European Space Agency astronaut L?opold Eyharts and NASA spaceflyer Garrett Reisman -- are men.

"I'm hoping I won't be needing this, but just in case," joked Whitson.