Malaysia's astronaut plans first Eid party in space

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KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 10 (Reuters) Malaysia's first astronaut will throw an Eid party in space in between research activities during his 11-day journey which takes off later today.

Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, an orthopaedic surgeon, takes off for the 100-billion dollars International Space Station (ISS) from Russia's Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, making him the first Muslim to fly into space during the fasting month of Ramadan.

Eid, which marks the end of the Ramadan, falls on Saturday in Malaysia.

As launch time nears, space fever has gripped the Southeast Asian nation, with millions of Malaysians preparing to watch the blast-off live when it is broadcast on three of the country's television networks at 1851 IST.

The 35-year-old Shukor has taken along some Malaysian satay, or skewers of spicy meat chunks, as well as cookies to hand out to others on board the space station on Saturday, the Star newspaper said.

Other Malaysian papers splashed the astronaut story on their front pages, with some publishing supplements detailing how Shukor will pray in space, following procedures spelt out in a guidebook for Islamic astronauts issued by the government.

Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has cancelled earlier plans for a trip to Baikonur and will instead follow events on a giant television screen in the Malaysian capital.

Shukor was selected from 11,000 Malaysian candidates in a deal the government arranged with Russia as part of a 1 billion dollars purchase of Russian jets.

The astronaut programme was conceived by Abdullah's predecessor, Mahathir Mohamad, who ruled Malaysia for 22 years until 2003.

''When one is short, one should stand on a box to get a better view,'' Mahathir, who pushed through an ambitious plan to transform Malaysia into a developed state by 2020, once said.

Mahathir is likely to watch the lift-off from hospital, where is recovering from a heart bypass, an aide said.

The space programme aims to motivate Malaysia's youth, Science Minister Jamaluddin Jarjis said, adding that the country might send another astronaut aloft in 2008 or 2009.

''We needed something to inspire our future generations, a generation that is not content with tapping rubber or working in factories,'' he told the New Straits Times newspaper.

Shukor will be flying with the new ISS crew commander, US astronaut Peggy Whitson, and Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko.

They will work for half a year in orbit while he will return with the outgoing ISS crew after 11 days in space.

REUTERS SZ RAI1050

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