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Muslim countries urged to reach for the stars
KUALA LUMPUR, April 25 (AFP) Apr 25, 2006
Muslim nations should embark on space programs to boost their international standing and inspire their people, a conference of scholars and scientists heard Tuesday as Malaysia prepares to send its first citizen into orbit.

Some 150 muftis and scientists at the two-day seminar also pondered how Muslim astronauts would pray in space, in the face of difficulties locating Mecca and holding the prayer position in a zero-gravity environment.

"We are hopeful that the efforts by the Malaysian government will inspire other Muslim countries to inaugurate space initiatives," said Saiyad Nizamuddin Ahmad of the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates.

"We need to have some kind of inspiring example that comes from our own Muslim world, not looking all the time to the US, England and European countries," he said.

Malaysia's space program represents "the return of Islamic civilisation to being an active contributor to the advancement of science and technology," he told the delegates.

The Malaysian Space Agency's director-general Mazlan Othman also said that she hoped other countries would be inspired by Malaysia which held a nationwide competition to select four would-be astronauts, three of them Muslim.

Delegates at the seminar are also deliberating just how a Muslim astronaut stationed on the International Space Station, which will circle the earth every 90 minutes, would pray five times a day as required in Islam.

"If Malaysia's first astronaut is a Muslim, then we have to prepare a guideline on how they will perform prayers and other routines in space, which will be a challenge," said science ministry official Ruddin Abdul Ghani.

Issues to be touched on include determining the direction of Mecca in space, performing ablutions for prayers with water rationing, fasting and preparing food according to Islamic standards.

"When you're in a zero-gravity environment, you're floating around and as soon as you go into rukuk (a prayer position), that motion will project itself forward, and maybe you'll do a somersault or go into some other direction. So you're going to have to be held down or something," said Saiyad.

The four candidates are currently undergoing rigorous training and will leave for Russia at the end of this month for three weeks of medical tests after which Malaysia and Russia will select one astronaut and a back-up candidate.

The pair will spend 18 months in training before Malaysia's first astronaut blasts off in October 2007 for a 10-day mission aboard the International Space Station.

The agreement for the Russians to send a Malaysian into space was part of a billion-dollar deal to sell 18 Sukhoi 30-MKM fighter jets to Malaysia.

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