Dr Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor (left) and Capt Dr Faiz Khaleed (right) - Bernama photo
SEPANG, Sept 4 (Bernama) -- Medical officer Dr Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor hopes to ace a punishing 12-month training in Russia before potentially carving his name as the first ever Malaysian astronaut, a feat most others can merely dream about.
He and dental surgeon Capt Dr Faiz Khaleed have been named the final two candidates for a spot in a Russian space launcher that will leave for the International Space Station (ISS) on Sept 2, 2007.
"I've put in my soul into this programme right from the beginning. I am going all the way," he told reporters following the announcement on the successful candidates by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi here Monday.
Scheduled to leave for Russia at the end of the month, Dr Sheikh Muszaphar, who is in his final year pursuing a Masters in Orthopaedic Surgery programme, said they would have to face a harsh winter and grapple with the Russian language.
The handsome Petaling Jaya-born 34-year-old cited mental strength as one of the strong points that worked in his favour.
"Becoming an astronaut is not about looks. It's more about your mental, physical and psychological strengths. I believe that I was selected based on merit," he said when queried whether his perceived popularity was a factor in the outcome of the selection process.
Proud that he had been chosen as one of the final two candidates, Dr Sheikh Muszaphar said he would love to conduct bone experiments in space in line with his orthopaedic background.
"This is an opportunity for me to show the 'Malaysia Boleh' (Malaysia Can) spirit and make the country proud," said the trainee-lecturer at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.
He stopped his part-time modelling act six months ago. "I have to be a role model instead of a model. My passion is still medicine."
At a press conference earlier, Science, Technology and Innovation Minister Datuk Seri Dr Jamaludin Jarjis said that Dr Sheikh Muszaphar was the priority candidate to go to space while Dr Faiz was the reserve.
"But it doesn't mean that the priority candidate will go up. Something can happen at the last minute, then it could be Dr Faiz who gets to go. So both have equal chances... and both will be doing exactly the same training," he said.
He said that the final selection on who gets to go into space would depend on the advice of the Astronaut Selection Panel headed by former Inspector-General of Police Tun Mohammed Hanif Omar.
Dr Jamaludin said that the initial training programme of 18 months in Russia had been shortened to 12 months as Russian officials felt that the Malaysian astronaut hopefuls were of high calibre.
He said that experiments to be conducted by the Malaysian astronaut would be based on life-sciences in light of the government's emphasis on biotechnology.
Efforts were also underway, he said, to establish communication channels between ordinary Malaysians and the astronaut aspirants while they were undergoing training and when one of them was in space.
Meanwhile, Dr Faiz expected a lot of challenges in the final stretch and personally did not believe in anybody who said they were fearless.
"Everybody has fear. But it's how you conquer that fear. We have gone through a lot of training, we have to focus. In the army we have been taught how to conquer fear and believe in ourselves," said the 26-year-old dentist from Kuala Lumpur, who is attached with the Malaysian Defence Forces.
The Sept 2, 2007 date chosen to launch the first Malaysian astronaut into space is significant for several reasons.
It coincides with the country's 50th anniversary celebrations and marks 40 years of Malaysia-Russia relations as well as the 50th anniversary of the launching of Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, in 1957 by the Soviets.
In his remarks, Abdullah said it would be the first step by Malaysia to prove its capability in the field of aerospace.
"On behalf of the government and all Malaysians, congratulations and use this opportunity to bring glory to the country," the Prime Minister said.
Dr Sheikh Muszaphar and Dr Faiz were among four aspirants who made the cut in the previous selection process that took them to Moscow for assessments.
Malaysia Airlines pilot Captain Mohammed Faiz Kamaludin, 34, and quality engineer S. Vanajah, 35, were gracious in offering congratulatory words to their two successful fellow astronaut trainees.
"I am very proud of what I have done so far. It has been a life-changing experience definitely. I have learned a lot about myself in this past one year," said Vanajah.
Mohammed Faiz took his unsuccessful attempt positively.
"I am all right. It was gratifying to get to meet all the different people from various fields of expertise, and being given the opportunity to go to Moscow itself," he said.
At the press conference, selection panel head Mohammed Haniff said that Vanajah didn't fare too well in the gravity test while Mohammed Faiz was let down by an unspecified medical problem.