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Must read: Rocket carries first woman commander, two others to space station

BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan - A Russian spacecraft soared from the Kazakh steppe toward the international space station Wednesday, carrying a Malaysian, a Russian, and Peggy Whitson, the American who will become the first woman to command the orbital outpost.

The Soyuz-FG rocket lifted off on schedule, rising into a darkening sky over the Russian-operated Baikonur launch facility. It was topped by a spacecraft that is to deliver Whitson, veteran Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko and Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, a Malaysian physician, to the space station Friday.

Applause broke out among space officials and other onlookers after the Soyuz TMA-11 spacecraft shed its rocket stages and entered orbit.

'Now they are stars in space, with their training, and with their beautiful machine, they will do good,' former space station astronaut Michael Fincke said.

Whitson, of Beaconsfield, Iowa, is making her second trip to the station.

A day before the launch, a Russian space official presented her with a traditional Kazakh whip to 'manage her crew.'

But Fincke said Whitson, 47, would not need it to lead a successful mission.

'She inspires people,' he said.

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.