First Malaysian astronaut returns to hero's welcome

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MOSCOW, Oct 21 (Reuters) Malaysia's first astronaut landed safely back in Kazakhstan to a hero's welcome today with two Russian cosmonauts after spending 11 days in space, officials at Moscow's mission control said.

The Soyuz capsule carrying Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, an orthopaedic surgeon from Kuala Lumpur, touched down about 200 km off course at 1607 IST because the trajectory of the capsule was changed after entering the atmosphere.

International Space Station commander, Fyodor Yurchikhin, and flight engineer, Oleg Kotov, who had both spent 197 days in space, accompanied Shukor on his return to earth.

Dashing towards earth in what officials call a ''ballistic'' landing put more stress on the astronauts but all three were in good health, Russian Space Agency chief Anatoly Perminov said.

In such a landing, the capsule follows a much steeper and shorter trajectory to earth, causing more spin and resulting in a bumpier ride that puts a greater strain on its occupants.

''They all feel satisfactory, I would even say well. And Sheikh Muszaphar feels best of all as his trip to space was much shorter than the other astronauts,'' Perminov said.

''The load on the astronauts was a little more than under a normal landing, that is natural. But the so called ballistic trajectory was held only for the last few minutes,'' he said.

A Malaysian deputy prime minister welcomed Shukor to earth saying his flight would go down in the annals of the Southeast Asian state's history.

Feted as a hero in Malaysia, Shukor's relatives at Mission Control outside Moscow clapped with joy when he landed after having said prayers for his safe return.

PART OF ARMS DEAL Shukor says he wants to inspire Malaysia like Russian astronaut Yuri Gagarin did in 1961 when he became the first man in space.

He was selected from 11,000 candidates in a deal Malaysia arranged with Russia as part of a 1 billion dollar purchase of Russian jets.

Malaysia's deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak was at Mission Control to watch as his return was traced on giant monitors.

''I congratulate you all on our success. For Malaysia this is an historical event that will go down in the annals of our history because this is our first cosmonaut,'' Najib told reporters in English.

''For Malaysia this is a major leap forward and I am convinced this will be an example for the future generations.'' Russia's Space Agency head, Perminov, said he would discuss future space cooperation with Najib. Shukor will travel to Moscow after undergoing medical tests.

REUTERS SKB PM1945

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