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Soyuz rocket lifts off, carrying U.S., Russian, Malaysian on space station mission

BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan — A Russian rocket blasted off from a launch facility in Kazakhstan on Wednesday, carrying an American, a Russian and a Malaysian to the international space station.

The Soyuz-FG rocket soared into a darkening sky above the Kazakh steppe.

Aboard were Peggy Whitson of Beaconsfield, Iowa, who will be the first woman to command the space station, veteran Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, and Dr. Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, the ninth Muslim in space but the first from Malaysia. They will arrive in two days.

The mission coincides with the last days of Ramadan, the holy month when Muslims fast from dawn until sundown, but Malaysian clerics decreed that Sheikh Muszaphar 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 spacecraft orbits the Earth — but clerics decided that the exact location matters only for the beginning of the prayer ritual.

Applause broke out among space officials and other onlookers at the launch site as the spacecraft entered orbit. Sheikh Muszaphar's parents watched the liftoff from an observation area, praying and in tears.

"I'm happy for my country, for Russia, for the United States and everybody," his father said.

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

Sheikh Muszaphar, a 35-year-old orthopedic surgeon, is to spend about 10 days on the station, performing experiments involving diseases and the effects of microgravity and space radiation on cells and genes.

On Tuesday, he told reporters that his trip will be an inspiration for his southeast Asian nation as well as to other Muslims all over the world.

"It's a small step for me, but a great leap for the Malaysian people," he said, paraphrasing Neil Armstrong's famous words after the Apollo landing on the moon.

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.