STAR CITY, Russia (Reuters) - Malaysia’s first astronaut said on Thursday his main priority aboard the International Space Station would be cancer research, but he would try to observe as much of Ramadan in orbit as possible.
Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, an orthopaedic surgeon and university lecturer from Kuala Lumpur, will leave Earth on October 10 from Kazakhstan’s Baikonur launchpad alongside Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko and American astronaut Peggy Whitson.
“Islam is very lenient. If I can’t fast in space I can always come back and do it at a later time,” Shukor told reporters at a news conference outside Moscow.
Shukor was selected from among 11,000 Malaysian candidates to fly aboard the ISS in a deal his government arranged with Russia as part of a $1 billion (500 million pound) purchase of Russian fighter jets.
He will be the first Malaysian ever and the first Muslim to fly into space during the fasting month of Ramadan, the holiest period of the Islamic calendar, when practicing Muslims abstain from food, drink and sex during daylight hours.
The International Space Station (ISS) will orbit the Earth 16 times every twenty-four hours while Shukor is aboard, though the workday clock will be pegged to Baikonur, two hours ahead of Moscow and two hours behind Kuala Lumpur.
A Saudi prince was the first Muslim in space when he flew aboard the American space shuttle in 1985, and last year space tourist Anousheh Ansari, an Iranian-born US citizen, paid $20 million to become the first female Muslim to orbit the Earth.
Shukor will be the latest space tourist to fly to the $100 billion station, but his candidacy is sponsored by the Malaysian government as part of the Muslim-majority nation’s emerging space programme.
He sat with five other ‘angkasawan’, the Malay word for astronaut, at a podium in Star City, the once top-secret training base for cosmonauts east of Moscow, and said the hardest aspect of the training for him was the weather.
“The temperature has been really cold, much colder than back in Asia,” Shukor said.
His back-up colleague, 27-year-old Faiz bin Khaleed, a dental surgeon in Malaysia’s military, said the Russian language lessons also proved difficult in the year-long training process.
“It’s hard, but it’s necessary. Without Russian we can’t understand anything else,” said bin Khaleed, in imprecise but understandable Russian.
Peggy Whitson will return to space for the second time, and in a Russian more nuanced from 184 days spent in space in 2002, she said the new ISS food menus will make life better 350 km (220 miles) above Earth.
“Before the food was packaged in 8-day cycles, and then the menu repeated. Now we are using a 16-day menu, so it should keep things from becoming dull,” said Whitson.
Also flying on October 10 will be Yuri Malenchenko, who is set to return to space for the fourth time. In 2003 he made headlines when he married an American woman in Texas via a satellite video hook-up from the ISS.
At the time, Malenchenko’s crewmate and best man played the wedding march on an electronic keyboard while the groom wore a bow tie with his flight suit.
ISS mission 16 is scheduled to last 192 days and oversee research experiments in medicine, ecology, biology, physiology and meteorology.
Whitson and Malenchenko will be joined in late October by an astronaut from the European Space Agency. Shukor will return to Earth with ISS-15 after 11 days.