It wouldn’t be hard for U.S. astronaut Peggy Whitson to "manage her crew" even though she is the first woman to command the international space station – she was presented with a nice Kazakh whip.
A Soyuz-FG rocket is scheduled to blast off Wednesday to take Whitson, Russian Yuri Malenchenko and Malaysia's first cosmonaut, Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, into orbit.
Whitson, who laughed as Russian space official Sergei Semchenko handed her the three-pronged whip and said she would take it "just in case," said the mission illustrated peace between the West and the Muslim world.
"The world is one place and it's very beautiful" when viewed from space, she said during a news conference at the Baikonur cosmodrome, which Russia rents from Kazakhstan.
Shukor, 35, who will be the ninth Muslim in space, said his 12-day 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, rephrasing Neil Armstrong's legendary words after the Apollo landing on the Moon.
"I feel a responsibility for all the Muslims in the world," Shukor said.
During his stay on the space station, Shukor, a physician, is to experiment with microbes of tropical diseases and with proteins for a potential HIV vaccine, and also study the effects of microgravity and space radiation on cancer cells and human genes.
"Shukor's mission will show that Muslims can contribute to global scientific research," Malaysia's space minister, Jamaludin Jarjis, told The Associated Press. "It will also help remove the negative perception of Muslims in the world."
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.
His religion also requires that he face Mecca for prayer - a direction that will change as the craft orbits the earth - but clerics decided that the exact location matters only for the beginning of the prayer ritual.
Shukor is to return to Earth on Oct. 21 with two Russian members of the current space station crew.
Whitson and Malenchenko will stay on as the station's new crew, and will be joined in October by U.S. astronaut Daniel Tani, who is arriving with the shuttle Discovery. Tani will replace fellow American Clayton Anderson, who has been at the station since June.
The American space program has depended on the Russians for cargo and astronaut delivery to the space station since the 2003 Columbia explosion.
The US$25 million agreement for a Malaysian astronaut to fly to space was negotiated in 2003 along with a US$900 million deal for Malaysia to buy 18 Russian fighter jets.
"In return for the purchase Russia allowed us to train and send a cosmonaut," Jarjis of the Malaysian space ministry said. "He should not be the last one."
The first Muslim in space was Saudi Prince Sultan bin Salman, who joined the crew of the shuttle Discovery in 1985.
Shukor follows Iranian-American Anousheh Ansari, who became the first female space tourist last year.