Next Space Station Crew, Malaysian Astronaut Ready to Fly
Astronaut Peggy Whitson (background), Expedition 16 commander, and cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, flight engineer representing Russia's Federal Space Agency, participate in a Soyuz training session at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center, Star City, Russia. Photo
Credit: Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center.

Two veteran astronauts and Malaysia?s first spaceflyer are poised for a Wednesday launch toward the International Space Station (ISS) to begin the busy mission of upgrading the orbital laboratory.

ISS Expedition 16 commander Peggy Whitson - the first woman to lead a station crew - will rocket into space alongside cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko and Malaysian Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor aboard a Russian-built rocket set to launch at 9:21 a.m. EDT (1321 GMT). Whitson and her crewmates expect to host three visiting space shuttle crews and install new ISS modules and laboratory segments during their six-month mission.

"It's going to be very aggressive with all the activities going on," Whitson said of the upcoming mission. "And it is going to be challenging."

Whitson and Malenchenko will replace the space station's current Expedition 15 commander Fyodor Yurchikhin and flight engineer Oleg Kotov during a 12-day crew swap. Shukor will return on Oct. 21 with the Expedition 15 crew, but NASA astronaut Clayton Anderson ? currently serving as an ISS flight engineer ? will stay aboard to join the first stage of Expedition 16.

The Russian-built Soyuz TMA-11 spacecraft ferrying Shukor and the Expedition 16 crew to the ISS will launch from the Central Asian spaceport of Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the same site that launched the world's first artificial satellite - Sputnik - 50 years ago last week.

"I believe we have achieved a considerable progress over such a short time period," Malenchenko said of Sputnik's anniversary. "Currently we have a continuous presence of humans in space, not only living in space but performing complicated activities and tasks, performing science experiments, and it has been going on for years."

First female ISS commander

Hailing from her family's farm in Beaconsfield, Iowa, Whitson is no stranger to long-duration spaceflight.

As a flight engineer and NASA's first official ISS science officer, she spent 185 days in orbit during the Expedition 5 station flight. But Expedition 16 will mark her first in a new role as the space station's first female commander.

"I guess it is a milestone and I guess I'm just the person that happened to be in the right place at the right time," Whitson told reporters. "I certainly don't want to be the last female commander of the space station, and I don't anticipate that to be the case."

Whitson, 47, is an accomplished biochemist with a Ph.D. from Rice University and first joined NASA as a research biochemist in 1989. By 1992, she served as the project scientist for the joint Shuttle-Mir program between NASA and Russia's Federal Space Agency. But it wasn't until 1996 that Whitson finally joined NASA's astronaut corps and achieved a childhood dream.

"It really didn?t become a reality to me to become a goal until I graduated from high school, which was coincidentally the same year they picked the first set of female astronauts," Whitson said in a NASA interview. "I think that was when I decided I wanted to become an astronaut."

Whitson said that, as a scientist, she is eager to see the deliver of the station's new Harmony connecting node later this month, which will serve as an anchor for the European-built Columbus laboratory to arrive in December, Japan's Kibo science modules to launch next year and others.

"I think it's a very important stepping stone," Whitson said, adding that the new modules and equipment will boost the station's ability to perform science.

Cosmonaut?s space return

Like Whitson, Malenchenko, too, is a veteran long-duration cosmonaut. But becoming a test cosmonaut and reaching space was not goal the 45-year-old initially believed to be attainable.

"When I was growing up almost every boy wanted to be a cosmonaut; every spaceflight was so unusual and so exciting," Malenchenko said in a NASA interview, adding that life as a military pilot appeared more realistic. "I was offered an opportunity to go into the space program and I agreed, and I never regretted it later."

A native of Svetlovodsk, Ukraine, Malenchenko attended Kharkov Military Aviation School and joined Russia's cosmonaut corps in 1987. After graduating from Zhukovsky Air Force Engineering Academy in 1993, he made his first long-duration spaceflight during a 126-day mission to Russia's Mir Space Station a year later.

In 2000, Malenchenko helped prime the ISS for human habitation during NASA's STS-106 shuttle flight, then took charge of the orbital laboratory in 2003 as commander of the 185-day Expedition 7 mission. During Expedition 16, he will serve as Soyuz spacecraft commander.

"You know, I would like to say that I spent a fair amount of time aboard the space station last time," Malenchenko told reporters. "So in a way, it feels like you are coming home."

Malenchenko said he welcomes the frenetic pace of orbital construction ahead for his Expedition 16 mission. During his Expedition 7, he commanded the station's first two-person crew after the 2003 Columbia shuttle accident.

"The situation overall was quite different," Malenchenko said. "Now what we are seeing is very active development and assembly of the station."

It is precisely those new assembly tasks that Malenchenko expects to enjoy, though he does hope to look at his home planet from time to time.

"It's always beautiful to look at the Earth and to photograph it," he said.

Malaysia?s first spaceflyer

An orthopedic surgeon by training, Shukor will make Malaysian history as the nation's first astronaut, or "angkasawan," during his 12-day orbital trek.

"To me, it's not just about going into space, even though I have been dreaming about going into space since I was 10," Shukor told reporters. "I hope to come back and promote the space program back in Malaysia."

A 35-year-old native of Kuala Lumpur, Shukor and backup spaceflyer Faiz Khaleed, a dental surgeon with the Royal Malaysian Armed Forces, were chosen from about 11,000 applicants to become Malaysia's first astronaut.

During his spaceflight, Shukor plans to perform a series of research and physiological experiments for Malaysia and the European Space Agency. He is also toting cultural items and foods to the ISS that he hopes will spur interest in space and science among Malaysia's youth.

Shukor, who is Muslim, will also be in orbit during the final days of the holy month of Ramadan, though Malaysian officials have said he won't have to fast while in space.

?I promise to make Malaysia proud,? Shukor wrote Tuesday on a Malaysian Web site where he is chronicling his flight. ?That?s a promise I intend to keep!?