Muslim astronaut to blast off during Ramadan

Kuala Lumpur - Malaysian religious authorities are hopeful that the country's first astronaut will also become the first Muslim to fast in space when he blasts off next month during Ramadan.

Two Malaysian candidates, a doctor and an army dentist who are both Muslims, are undergoing training in Russia with the winner to be selected before the 11-day space mission starts on October 10.

Other Muslims have ventured into space, but none during the fasting month of Ramadan which began last week.

Anan C. Mohd, from Malaysia's Department of Islamic Development, said the astronaut could choose to fast in space or replace his fasting days when he returns to Earth aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

"It will be great if our astronaut chooses to fast. We are looking forward to having him relate his experience of fasting in space. I'm sure he is equally excited and will find it a thrilling experience," he told the Sunday Star newspaper.

Anan said that the times for beginning and ending the fast should follow the local time in Baikonur, where the launch will take place in Russia.

Much thought has gone into how to reconcile Islam with a space mission, including a conference here last year where muftis and scientists pondered how to pray in space in the face of difficulties locating Mecca and holding the prayer position in a zero-gravity environment.

Anan said that the National Fatwa Committee had given some leeway to the astronaut to perform his religious obligations in space.

"As certain rituals might be difficult due to microgravity, the astronaut can perform them in other ways like reciting them in his heart, as long as the intention is pure," he told the Star.

Malaysia's would-be astronauts were chosen from thousands of hopefuls in a nationwide contest.

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.

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