BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan (Reuters) - A Russian Soyuz spacecraft carrying Malaysia's first astronaut, a U.S. astronaut and a Russian cosmonaut blasted off to rendezvous with the International Space Station on Wednesday.
Thousands of Malaysians watched the blast-off live on television as the TMA-11 rocket carrying Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, an orthopaedic surgeon and university lecturer from Kuala Lumpur, lifted off from Russia's Baikonur Cosmodrome in the Kazakh steppe.
Russian officials said the rocket lifted off on schedule, at 05:22 p.m. Moscow time (2:22 p.m. British time) and successfully went into orbit, circling the earth every 88.7 minutes.
"Each space launch is a pretty tense and maybe the most complicated stage of space flight," said Vladimir Solovoyov, who is in charge of Russia's segment of the ISS.
"This one went off successfully and without a hitch," he said, visibly relieved after the craft reached orbit.
Staff at mission control shook each others' hands. Live pictures from aboard the rocket, which was travelling at a speed of 8 km (4.97 miles) per second, showed the crew sitting calmly and reading their flight logs.
"Now we will have the most difficult stage, when the spaceship must adjust its route and get into orbit," said Solovoyov at mission control centre outside Moscow.
The crew is scheduled to dock to the $100-billion (49 billion pounds) ISS on Friday. Shukor is flying with the ISS Expedition-16 commander, U.S. astronaut Peggy Whitson and Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, who will work in space for half a year.
He will return to earth on October 21 together with the station's current commander, Russian Fyodor Yurchikhin and Russian Flight Engineer Oleg Kotov.
In Kuala Lumpur, crowds flocked to Freedom Square, the historic colonial centre of the capital, to watch the countdown on giant screens.
They broke into cheers and applause as the rocket lifted off, with people clapping their hands and crying out 'Malaysiaku', or 'Our Malaysia'.
"We feel very good, very excited and inspired by the first Malaysian in space," said Mohamad Faiz Farhan, a 17-year-old science student who made a two-hour journey to the capital to watch the event along with four friends.
The third member of the outgoing crew, U.S. Flight Engineer Clay Anderson, will remain onboard with Expedition-16 and return to Earth in November aboard the U.S. 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 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.
His country's Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi watched the lift-off at a banquet in the capital's business centre, where seven giant TV screens dominated a room of about 3,000 people. Stalls outside sold astronaut T-shirts and space toys.
"I am happy and satisfied with this historical event," Abdullah told the gathering. "It is significant for the country and the citizens."
(additional reporting by Hsu Chuang Khoo and Clarence Fernandez in Kuala Lumpur)