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Wednesday October 10, 2007
By JANE RITIKOS
BAIKONUR (Kazakhstan): At exactly 9.23pm (Malaysian time), the Soyuz -FG rocket launcher blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome.
The rocket launcher, carrying the Soyuz TMA-II spacecraft with Malaysian cosmonaut Dr Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor and his crew members on board, lit up the clear night sky.
Witnesses to the event from the launch view, three kilometres away from the launch pad, felt the ground shake from the enormous thrust of the launcher.
VIPs and guests who witnessed the launch included Dr Sheikh Muszaphar’s proud parents Datuk Sheikh Mustapha Shukor and Datin Zuraida Sheikh Ahmad.
Dr Sheikh Muszaphar, Nasa’s commander Peggy Whitson - the first female International Space Station (ISS) commander - and Russian Yuri Malechencko comprise Expedition 16S, which will make a trip to the ISS and return on Oct 21.
Some two hours before the launch, all communication systems (telephone lines, mobile telephone lines and TV) were cut off in Baikonur to block the airwaves and ensure contact with the crew was not disrupted in any way. A blackout was also experienced as the power supply was drained by the launch.
During the launch, road and rail traffic were also halted as a safety measure.
The crews' big day began when they walked out of the Cosmonaut Hotel, which is not a guest hotel but actually a branch of the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre where they were quarantined.
They boarded a bus that took them to the launch pad, seven hours prior to the launch.
On the bus, they watched a 10-minute video of their friends and families wishing them bon voyage.
The bus stopped midway for a ritual that has been performed by cosmonauts since the time of Yuri Gagarin – the male crew urinated on the bus tyres.
At the launch pad, they made their “last walk”, which was the last chance for family members and people to see them from a distance at the Cosmodrome.
The three put on their custom-made Sukol space suit before they went through a formal military ceremony and shook hands with important guests, including the Prime Minister of Kazakhstan, Russian Federal Space Agency chief Perminov Anatoli Nikolaevich, Kazakh Space Agency chief Musabaev Talgat Amangeldievish and Malaysian Ambassador to Russia Datuk Mohamad Khalis Ali Hassan.
About four hours to the launch, the crew were hoisted to the capsule using an elevator. They were strapped to their seats and went through system checks.
Forty-five minutes to the launch, the rocket’s service gantry was removed, the flight programme loaded and the crews' space suits were checked for air tightness.
Unlike a shuttle launch, the Soyuz rocket launch has no countdown - blast off occurs when everything is in place and set to go.
The rocket’s four lateral boosters were started 29 seconds to launch. Then it was blast off, during which the gravity pull was 4G.
The rocket shot up at a speed of 800km per second to reach orbit in two minutes.
Two minutes into launch, the four lateral boosters were jettisoned, and the gravity pull was reduced to 1.5G.
When the core stage engine fired at full thrust, gravity force climbed to 3G.
Third-stage separation occurred at 8.48 seconds into launch, when the space capsule was fully separated.
It took about nine minutes for Soyuz to enter zero gravity, after which it will orbit the earth for two days before docking with the ISS, a process that will take two to three hours.
Prior to docking, the cosmonauts will be strapped to their seats the entire time.
Once in orbit, the mission will be taken over by the Mission Control Centre in Moscow.
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