Thursday, April 14, 2011

Keeping pace with space

He is the first Muslim to have offered prayers in space. He is a man with a strong determination and vision to take the Ummah to a new height of glory, to space.

Meet Datuk Dr. Sheikh Muszaphar — a doctor by qualification, an astronaut by training and a model by choice. Now the man is on a mission to establish an Islamic Space Agency (ISA).

"Around 500 people have gone into space but only nine of them have been Muslims," said Muszaphar, a Malaysian, speaking about his ambitious project.

Upset over a poor growth of scientific research and achievement in Muslim countries, Muszaphar said: "We must remember he who conquers space will conquer the world."

Muszaphar wants Muslim states to also take a keen interest in space technology. He wants more Muslims to go into space, and in pursuit of his goal, he has conceived the idea of the ISA and is in touch with four other Muslim astronauts.

Muszaphar is passionate about his project. He wants Muslim and Arab nations to unite and retain the scientific and technological upper hand. "I want to bring Muslim scientists, scholars, aerospace engineers, astronauts and others under one roof for research and development to build a technically sound and intellectually rich nation."

Born on July 27, 1972, Muszaphar is an orthopedic surgeon and the first Malaysian to go into space. He earned a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery degree from Kasturba Medical College, Manipal, India. He was pursuing his Master's in orthopedic surgery at University Kebangsaan, Malaysia, when he joined the "Angkasawan" space program.

After completing initial training at Star City in Russia, Muszaphar and Faiz Khaled were selected to undergo an 18-month training program in Russia at the end of which Muszaphar was chosen as prime crew member, while Faiz Khaled served as back up.

When asked what was the reason for his final selection, he said: "There is nothing exceptional about me, I'm not the fastest runner, or the fastest swimmer, or physically very strong. But I'm mentally very sharp. My strength is mind. I believe what the mind believes the body can achieve," he said.

Muszaphar performed experiments on board the International Space Station (ISS) relating to the characteristics and growth of liver cancer and leukemia cells, and the crystallization of various proteins and microbes in space.

The experiments relating to liver cancer, leukemia cells and microbes were conducted to benefit science and medical research, while the experiments relating to the crystallization of proteins, lipases in this case, will directly benefit Malaysian industries, he said.

Muszaphar was launched to the ISS aboard Soyuz TMA-11 with the Expedition 16 crew on Oct. 10, 2007. He flew under an agreement between Malaysia and Russia, and returned to Earth on Oct. 21, 2007. Muszaphar shared his story on being the first Malaysian "Angkasawan" and his journey into space with Arab News. He touched on many of the difficulties he faced when eating, drinking, sleeping and praying in space, a topic of much debate among Muslim scholars across the globe.

"For me it was a dream come true. I have been very much fascinated by space since age 10; I used to look at the sky from the window of my house. I always wanted to go there; it was my childhood dream which came true with my flight from Kazakhstan," he said.

"Once there, I realized how small the Earth is and how big other planets in the galaxy are. The first time when I saw earth from the space, it was a magical feeling, my heart stopped beating, my eyes stopped blinking at the sight of beautiful Earth. And believe me, I had the same magical feeling when I performed Haj," Muszaphar said.

An interesting part of his space odyssey was that he offered all five prayers a day during his 12 days in space. Since Muszaphar is a Muslim, and as his time in space coincided with the last part of Ramadan, the Islamic National Fatwa Council drew up the first comprehensive guidebook for Muslims in space.

Muslims are required to pray five times a day. Each prayer is performed at a certain defined hour. Muszaphar said the challenge was how to know the prayer time in a shuttle or space station that orbited the Earth 16 times every 24 hours.

This meant he had to pray 80 times a day, as the sun appears rising and setting every 45 minutes from the ISS. So, the solution was to adhere to the prayer times in Kazakhstan, from where the astronaut had left for space. "For my prayers I chose the local time in Baikonur from where I was launched into space," he said.

Muszaphar celebrated Eid Al-Fitr aboard the ISS. He had taken some cookies that he distributed among the crew members on Oct. 13, 2007, to mark the end of Ramadan.

He said the main objectives of the Angkasawan program were to inculcate an interest in science and technology among young Malaysians and to motivate them to dream the impossible. Muszaphar hopes to be the catalyst for change in the minds of young Malaysians. "It's not about name or fame. It is about my promises. I want to inspire and change the mind set."

After being in outer space and serving people as a surgeon on earth, Muszaphar has now set his sights on the sky. He hopes to become a pilot by 2013 after finishing his contract with Malaysia's Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation. May Allah keep us strong, Aameen