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Malaysia Hopes Space Voyage Will Inspire Future Scientists

Malaysia's first astronaut is orbiting the Earth after months of training and a successful launch from Kazakhstan. Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor is accompanying American Astronaut Peggy Whitson and Russian Cosmonaut Yury Malenchenko on a 12-day mission to the International Space Station. Chad Bouchard reports from Bangkok.

A Russian Soyuz TMA-11 spacecraft carrying Southeast Asia's first space traveler lifted off from Kazakhstan's Baikonur space center Wednesday night.

The spacecraft is scheduled to dock with the International Space Station on Friday.

Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, a Malaysian orthopedic surgeon, is due to research the effects of micro-gravity and space radiation on cells, and conduct experiments on proteins in an effort to develop an HIV vaccine.

In an interview with VOA from Kazakhstan, Malaysia's Science, Technology and Innovations Minister, Jamaluddin Jarjis, says he hopes the mission will inspire a new generation of Malaysian scientists.

"Putting our man, our Malaysian man in space, is basically - we want to raise the bar for Malaysia in terms of acquiring knowledge for the future, especially the young ones, the five million kids in school," he said. "And also we are quite proud, because in conjunction with our 50th anniversary of the nation, that we are positioning ourselves as part the - connected to the world."

Muszaphar is a member of Malaysia's Malay ethnic group, and much advance study and debate went into deciding how he would honor his Muslim religious duties while in space.

The Muslim requirement to face in the direction of Mecca during daily prayers, for example, is a challenging prospect while orbiting hundreds of miles above the earth in a weightless environment. An imaginary line from Mecca into space was drawn, and it was decided that Muszaphar would face that line at the start of his prayers, and continue facing the same direction throughout the flight.

He also pledged to follow religious practice during the last days of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which coincide with the beginning of the mission.

Malaysian clerics exempted Muszaphar from fasting while in space, but he says he will observe the fasts anyway.

The country's Ministry of Religion has written the world's first handbook for Muslim astronauts to sort out that and other religious issues.

Malaysia paid Russia $25 million to allow Muszaphar's participation, part of a $900 million package linked to Malaysia's purchase of 18 Russian fighter jets.

The 35-year-old surgeon is scheduled to return to Earth October 21, while his two companions remain behind in the space station.