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Malaysian to join Russian and U.S. astronauts into space

The 16th mission to the International Space Station is ready to fly. Together with Russian and U.S. astronauts, Malaysia's Sheikh Muzaphar Shukor will also go into orbit. He will be the first Malaysian in space and the first Muslim to live onboard the ISS

Sheikh Muzsaphar Sokhur will only spend 10 days at the ISS, but he is acutely aware of the symbolism of his journey.

“I do hope to become like Yury Gagarin and spark an interest among the Malaysian people, especially the schoolchildren,” Sheikh Muzsaphar Sokhur notes.

A free trip to space isn't a conventional business sweetener, but that's exactly what Malaysia received, when it purchased nearly a billion dollar's worth of Sukhoi jets from Russia four years ago.

Then it gave any Malaysian the chance to become a spaceman.

Initially, 11,000 applied, but step-by-step the list was whittled down, until there were just two candidates left.

Each day Sheikh Muzsaphar and Faiz Khaleed went through a full-strength Russian space training programme, but neither knew which one was going to space.

The modules included being subjected to extreme G-forces and near weightless conditions, as well as the legendary survival course, when a crew is abandoned in an unknown wilderness for three days, and left to fend for itself.

“I enjoyed the sea survival and the winter survival, even though I was quite disappointed we didn't go to Siberia for the winter survival,” Sheikh Muzsaphar Sokhur sighs.

It was only on Tuesday, after the final exams that both candidates passed with distinction that the winner was chosen.

A doctor with an unusual sideline in modeling, who's served on humanitarian missions in Afghanistan and Cambodia, becoming an astronaut seems a logical step for Sheikh Muzsaphar.

But, as only the third Muslim astronaut, and the first to travel during Ramadan, Muzsaphar is in a quandary about how his religion can be reconciled with space travel. How often to pray? What about the Ramadan fast?

In fact, the Malaysian Department of Islamic Development has been forced to publish a 12-page booklet, explaining how a proper Muslim should behave aboard the ISS.

Meanwhile, American Peggy Whitson will become the first female commander of the ISS. And long after Sheikh Muzsaphar has flown home, she will oversee nearly a twofold expansion of the ISS over the next six months.