MOSCOW (AP) – An American astronaut climbed aboard the international space station Friday for a stint as its first female commander after a two-day trip from Earth and a textbook docking. Peggy Whitson, cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko and Malaysian physician Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor scooted through hatches linking the station with the Soyuz TMA-11 craft they rode into orbit from Russia’s launch facility in Kazakhstan.

The Soyuz docked on schedule at 10:50 a.m. EDT after catching up with the station and firing thrusters to get into position, said Valery Lyndin, chief spokesman for Russian Mission Control outside Moscow.

“Everything is great,” Malenchenko told Mission Control shortly after the ship locked onto the station about 220 miles over Central Asia. A commentator with the U.S. space agency NASA called the docking “flawless.”

Whitson and her crewmates clambered through the hatches about 90 minutes later and joined the station’s current crew, cosmonauts Fyodor Yurchikhin and Oleg Kotov, and astronaut Clayton Anderson. The newcomers traded their bulky gear for more comfortable jumpsuits and spoke to well-wishers at Mission Control via a video link.

“The fun is just about to begin,” Yurchikhin said.

Sheikh Muszaphar, a 35-year-old orthopedic surgeon fulfilling his own dream of space travel and his country’s, was already having fun. “I feel very well,” he said in Russian, grinning as his body shifted in the zero gravity. In English, he said, “I’m having a very good time here with my friends from Russia and America – and my love to all Malaysians out there.”

Sheikh Muszapar will perform experiments involving diseases and the effects of microgravity and space radiation on cells and genes. The $25 million deal for a Malaysian astronaut to fly to space was negotiated in 2003 along with a $900 million deal for Malaysia to buy 18 Russian fighter jets.

The ninth Muslim in space, he has said his roughly 10-day stay on the station should inspire his homeland and Muslims all over the world.

Whitson, a 47-year-old biochemist from Beaconsfield, Iowa, was selected as an astronaut in 1996 and spent six months on the international space station in 2002. She will formally assume command from Yurchikhin on Oct. 19, Lyndin said.

Showing her space legs, she leaned effortlessly on her elbow despite the zero gravity as she and the others accepted congratulations from Russian and American space officials on Earth.

Whitson and Malenchenko will replace Yurchikhin and Kotov, who are slated to return to Earth along with Sheikh Muszaphar on Oct. 21 in a Soyuz capsule.

Malenchenko, 45, traveled to the international space station on the shuttle Atlantis in 2000 and returned for a six-month stint as its commander in 2003. He spent time on Russia’s space station, Mir, more than a decade ago.

He and Whitson are to be joined this month by U.S. astronaut Daniel Tani, who is scheduled to arrive on the shuttle Discovery. Tani will replace Anderson, who has been at the station since June.

Anderson, a fan of the University of Nebraska football team, tossed a football in zero gravity as the crew prepared to open the hatches, NASA footage showed.

After Tani’s arrival, the station’s crew – known as Expedition 16 – will prepare for the expansion of the station, which is set to add European and Japanese modules in coming months.

Discovery will bring up a connecting mode called Harmony, and the station’s crew will perform space walks to put it in place for a December shuttle docking and the arrival of the European Space Agency module, Columbus, NASA’s space operations chief Bill Gerstenmaier told reporters at Mission Control after the docking.

“This is Gerst … it’s great to see you guys in orbit,” he told the newly arrived crew. “Have some fun and do a lot of great work.”

AP-ES-10-12-07 1618EDT

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