Russian rocket launches first Malaysian into space

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BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan, Oct 10 (Reuters) A Russian Soyuz spacecraft carrying Malaysia's first astronaut Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, a US astronaut and a Russian cosmonaut blasted off to rendezvous with the International Space Station today.

The TMA-11 rocket lifted off from Russia's Baikonur Cosmodrome in the Kazakh steppe on schedule, at 05:22 pm Moscow time 1852 hrs IST.

Nine minutes after the launch, when the rocket had reached an altitude of about 200 km (124.3 miles) above the earth, an announcer at mission control near Moscow said: ''Spaceship TMA-11 is in orbit.'' Staff at mission control shook each others' hands.

Live pictures from on board the rocket, which was travelling at a speed of 8 km per second, showed the crew sitting calmly and reading their flight logs.

The crew is scheduled to dock to the 100-billion dollars ISS on Friday. Shukor is flying with the ISS Expedition-16 commander, US astronaut Peggy Whitson and Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, who will work in space for half a year.

The Malaysian, an orthopaedic surgeon and university lecturer from Kuala Lumpur, will leave the space outpost on Oct.

21 together with the station's current commander, Russian Fyodor Yurchikhin and Russian Flight Engineer Oleg Kotov.

The third member of the outgoing crew, US Flight Engineer Clay Anderson, will remain onboard with Expedition-16 and return to Earth in November aboard the US Space Shuttle Discovery.

Shukor is the first Muslim to fly into space during the holy month of Ramadan after being selected from 11,000 candidates in a deal Malaysia arranged with Russia as part of a 1 billion dollar purchase of Russian jets.

He says his flight is ''a giant leap'' for Malaysia and he wants to inspire his Southeast Asian nation just like Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin did back in 1961 when he became the world's first man in space.

REUTERS SYU BST2057

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