‘S’pore will be the aerospace hub for space tourism’

SingaporeScene

Malaysian astronaut Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor encourages Singapore to pursue a future in space. (Yahoo! photo/Fann Sim)

Singapore could be the aerospace hub for space tourism given the huge interest in the niche market, famed Malaysian astronaut Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor said on Wednesday.

"I do hope that Singapore will look into sending a Singaporean to space, maybe focusing on space tourism, because nowadays everybody is looking out for space tourism and things are much, much cheaper,"said Muszaphar.

"And I believe that Singapore will be the aerospace hub for space tourism in the years to come," he added.

The 39-year-old space traveller was speaking at a dialogue session with students at ITE College Central (Simei), about the about the progress of Asia's own space race.

Space travel has remained predominantly western, although in the last 20 years a number of Asians have made the "out-of-the-world" voyage.

In 2003, China was the first Asian country to launch the first human spaceflight mission on the Shenzhou 5. India and Japan are catching up and will be launching their own missions in the next few years.

As part of the Malaysian Space Angkasawan program, Muszaphar became the first Malaysian astronaut and travelled to outer space to stay on board the International Space Station for almost 11 days in October 2007.

"When I went up to space, millions and millions of people watched me, not just the Muslims but also the Chinese, the Indians and the whole community," said Muszaphar.

An orthopedic surgeon by training, Muszaphar was in space conducting experiments on cancer cells and bacteria and protein crystals hoping to find a cure for cancer and many other diseases.

Malaysia's Angkasawan program left some in Singapore wondering whether the city-state would ever play a part in space exploration.

Since the space race between Russia and the U.S. in the 1960s, space travel has been dominated by the western world.

Now that the US has ended its space shuttle missions, some wonder if the space race is moving over to Asia.

When asked whether the Republic could send its very own astronaut into space, Muszaphar said it is not impossible, but this depends on the vision of Singapore's leaders.

"It is important for Singapore to have such an icon, because then young Singaporeans will want to mimic the astronaut and it will be something good for the nation."

Muszaphar wants to change the mindsets of youths in Southeast Asia. (Yahoo! photo/Fann Sim)

Malaysia's decision to send one of its citizens into space was to inspire the younger generation, and to ignite an interest in math and science, he added. Now, whenever young children see him, they tell him they aspire to be astronauts.

He  said he has observed Singaporean students to be very brave, highly intellectual and positive.

Muszaphar encouraged young Singaporeans to be involved in science and aerospace as a space exploration future will not be too far ahead.

But before Singapore commits itself to space exploration, Muszaphar feels that more needs to be done to highlight the importance of exploring the final frontier.

"Seeing how small and how tiny the Earth is from space made me realise that we are actually insignificant. There are millions and millions of galaxies out there, and it saddens me that people are killing each other and destroying the earth and killing the environment."

Seeing that going to space has changed his life, he feels that everybody should get the chance to go to space.

Muszaphar is now on an Asian tour, giving motivational talks to children and teenagers to encourage them to pursue their dreams, no matter how "astronomical" they are.

He recalls the moments when he first told people he wanted to become an astronaut and many people laughed at him. People were telling him, "There's no way you can become an astronaut".

Muszaphar overcame the negative comments by focusing on what he wanted and surrounded himself with positive people.

Muszaphar because the first Malaysian in space in 10 October 2007. (AFP Photo)

"It's not easy for us especially Southeast Asians to become astronauts, because it's very limited and the opportunities are very little," said Muszaphar.

"So I would encourage them to be engineers, scientists, doctors, because you can go on board and be an astronaut that way too," he added.

He and three out of four brothers were part of the 11,425 contenders in the Angkasawan program, but Muszaphar emerged to be the chosen one.

Muszaphar appears to be in perfect harmony as a man of science and a man of faith. His time in space coincided with Ramadan and a guidebook was drawn up by the Islamic National Fatwa Council for Muslims in space.

Muszaphar had to change the way he prayed in a low-gravity environment and had to learn how to locate Mecca from the ISS.

And because the ISS completes a rotation around Earth every 90 minutes, Muszaphar saw about 32 sunrises and sunsets every day from the ISS. By those calculations, Muszaphar had to pray 80 times every 24 hours.

Under the guidelines, Muszaphar need only pray five times a day onboard.

Muszaphar's experience in space has made him even more spiritual. "During my time in space, I heard the azaan (Islamic call to prayer) and it was the most magical sound I've heard in my life."

He added that "In space, you just feel closer to the Creator".

When asked if he would ever to go to space again, he responded swiftly "I will, in a heartbeat".

The handsome astronaut has done many things in the last 20 years, including commercial modelling, becoming a restaurateur, an aerospace lecturer and an astronaut. He maintains that becoming a father is the one job that he loves and enjoys the most.

Muszaphar, who welcomed a baby girl in his family just five days ago, said his new responsibilities as a father don't faze him.

Moving forward, the dashing Malaysian said he plans to do a two-year school tour to give inspirational talks to students.

"It's all part of my responsibilities. It's not about fame. It's not about glory. It's not just about going to space. It's about coming back and changing the mindset of the younger generation."

The over-achiever also plans to get a pilot's licence by 2013, following which he hopes to travel to Africa for humanitarian work.

Giving his own advice to students, he said, "You must dream big, believe in yourself and be very vocal."