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Malaysia announces first astronaut
KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 4 (AFP) Sep 04, 2006
Malaysia on Monday unveiled its first astronaut, a 34-year-old doctor who will blast off on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft and visit the International Space Station in September 2007.

Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor was the winner of a nationwide hunt which drew tens of thousands of hopefuls. Army dentist Faiz Khaleed, 26, was chosen as the back-up astronaut, or "angkasawan" as they are known in the Malay language.

"I pray to God that he will ensure the success of your mission and raise the profile of Malaysia in the international arena," Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said at a ceremony to announce the winning candidates.

The pair, who will now undergo a year of training in Moscow's Star City, came from a short list of four -- three men and one woman -- who spent a month in Russia undergoing tests to determine the best contender.

Sheikh Muszaphar, who is an orthopaedic doctor and a trainee lecturer in medicine with the National University of Malaysia, said he was realising a boyhood dream.

"I feel honoured and blessed to be picked," he told reporters. "I've always dreamt to go to space since I was 10 years old. My favourite TV programs have been Star Trek and the Star Wars movies."

Sheikh Muszaphar said the one-year stint in Russia would see the pair undergo survival training in difficult conditions such as wintry climes, at sea and in the jungle.

The astronauts will also learn how to conduct research and experiments in space, such as an examination of the behaviour in space of Malaysia's favourite beverage, a sweet concoction of tea and condensed milk called teh tarik.

The astronauts said the inclusion of teh tarik would showcase Malaysian culture and lend a unique Malaysian flavour to the mission.

"It's great. It is one of the symbols in Malaysia. The Italians introduced pizza in space," said runner-up Faiz Khaleed.

Sheikh Muszaphar's father, 70-year-old Sheikh Mustapha Shukor, said the mission was dangerous but that "we allowed him because this is his desire."

"Now that he is a representative of the nation, he must remain humble and carry the flag of Malaysia," he said.

Science, Technology and Innovation Minister Jamaluddin Jarjis said the launch date would be September 2 next year, which will fall near the 50th anniversary of Malaysia's independence and mark 40 years of diplomatic ties with Russia.

"This is an historic day as Malaysia celebrates its 50th independence anniversary. This date also commemorates Malaysia-Russian ties," he said.

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 then prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, whose think-big attitude spawned a national catch-phrase -- "Malaysia Boleh!" or "Malaysia Can!" -- aimed at boosting national pride.

Malaysia, a Muslim-majority nation, hopes the space project will be an inspiration for Muslims across the globe and recall the glory days of Islamic science and discovery.

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