8 June 2006
KUALA LUMPUR – The United States has the astronaut, China has the taikonaut, and now Malaysia has the ”angkasawan”, as the country with a mania for record-setting prepares to blast its first citizen into space.
Malaysia’s determination to seek recognition on the international stage has already seen it scrape the skies — constructing the glittering Petronas Twin Towers which for a time was the world’s tallest building.
A small Muslim-majority nation with big ambitions, it hopes the space project will be an inspiration for Muslims across the globe and recall the glory days of Islamic science and discovery.
The nationwide hunt to select the candidate who will hitch a ride on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station in October 2007 drew tens of thousands of hopefuls.
The three men and one woman who made the shortlist have spent a month going through their paces in Moscow, undergoing an intensive course in everything from Russian language and table manners to orbital mechanics.
A battery of tests and examinations will identify the best candidate and a back-up astronaut, who will undergo 18 months of training in Star City, Moscow.
The chief of the National Space Agency, or Angkasa, Mazlan Othman said the program was an inspiration to young people in multicultural Malaysia, which strives for harmony among its ethnic Malay, Indian and Chinese communities.
“The excitement that it generates … inspiring the young people, making them see how important it is to be good, to be healthy, it’s part of the plan,” she told AFP.
“The country needs a project which the entire country can rally behind, and … would make people aware that there are lofty ideals to be achieved.”
Malaysia’s space project could help encourage national unity and a sense of national identity, she said.
“And most importantly also because three of the candidates are Muslim, it’s for us to also give a message to the world that Muslims are also involved in high-technology, cutting-edge science.
“We hope to inspire the rest of the Muslim world that there are things beyond the Earth.” she said. “We talk about the glorious days of Islamic science, well maybe it’s time we got back into that and rebuilt those glorious days.”
The project was conceived in 2003 when Russia agreed to send a Malaysian to the space station as part of a billion-dollar purchase of 18 Sukhoi 30-MKM fighter jets.
It came at the end of the two-decade reign of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, whose think-big attitude created a national catch-phrase — “Malaysia Boleh!” or “Malaysia Can” — aimed at boosting national self-confidence and pride.
Apart from some pointless and downright silly record-setting attempts, like staging the world’s biggest sit-down dinner and making the longest spring roll, the era also saw two Malaysians conquer Everest and another sail round the world.
The latest adventure has captured the imagination of ordinary Malaysians and the media has keenly reported the rigorous selection process, with some fans even organising betting pools on who will be Malaysia’s first citizen in space.
A conference in Kuala Lumpur considered questions such as how Muslim astronauts could pray in space, locate Mecca while revolving around the earth, and prepare food according to “halal” standards.
And although there was initial talk of the astronauts going into space dressed in traditional batik, and with a supply of the country’s favourite food — “teh tarik” a strong brew made with condensed milk and “roti canai” greasy flatbread — such talk has now been dropped for a more scientific approach.
“They have built up their confidence throughout the process, and there’s been a lot of improvement in terms of communication skills,” said Mazlan.
The candidates faced tests of physical endurance as well as challenges of their mental state, including swamp walks and nights spent in a palm oil plantation with snakes and mocked-up “corpses” for company.
“I lay down on that hard cold ground for what felt like an eternity. I came out of that swamp having faced my worst fears,” said the sole woman cadet, S. Vanajah.
Vanajah, an ethnic Indian engineer who is the only candidate not from the majority community of Muslim Malays, said she did not see race as as issue.
“I really don’t see myself as a non-Malay or Malay. That does not play a part in this. I see myself as a Malaysian,” she said adding that it was “the dream of our leaders, the dream of our nation, the dream of our people”.
The other candidates in training are Malaysia Airlines pilot Mohammed Faiz Kamaluddin, 34; army dentist Faiz Khaleed, 26; and Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, a 34-year-old hospital medical officer.
Faiz Khaleed agreed ethnicity was not important, saying that it was crucial that the “the right person, the best person go up. It might be me, it might not, but it’s not about me, it’s about Malaysia.”
“Even if I don’t get to go, I will support them, because Malaysia is goingup to space, it’s an historic moment,” he said.