KUALA LUMPUR - WHILE some Malaysians are excited as the country's first astronaut prepares to blast into space today, others see the trip as a waste of money.
There are those who hope that Dr Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor will be the first in a line of Malaysian astronauts. But some see him as a space tourist squandering US$25 million (S$37 million) of public money.
The critics have seized on Nasa's description of the part-time model as a 'space flight participant', suggesting he is merely along for the ride, although Kuala Lumpur has been quick to point out that Russia's space agency has recognised him as a cosmonaut.
Dr Muszaphar, who beat 11,274 other candidates to win his place on the Russian Soyuz-FG rocket, will use his 12-day trip to study the effects of microgravity and space radiation on cells and microbes. He will also be conducting experiments with proteins for a potential HIV vaccine.
He said: 'I promise to make Malaysia proud. That is a promise I plan to keep.'
The doctor is scheduled to arrive at the International Space Station (ISS), in orbit 333km from Earth, on Friday.
Meanwhile, government-organised launch parties and activities are being held across Malaysia today, and there will be a live telecast of the blast-off from Kazakhstan.
Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi will watch the event from the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre along with 280 school students.
Datuk Seri Abdullah will hold a tele- conference with Dr Muszaphar on Sunday as well, the Utusan Malaysia daily reported yesterday.
The Education Ministry has selected six students who will travel to Russia and chat live by satellite with Dr Muszaphar during his mission.
Criticism of the cost of the trip has led to officials avoiding any mention of it, other than to say it is part of a US$900 million defence deal struck with Moscow in 2003 to buy 18 Sukhoi Su-30 MKM fighter jets.
The director of the national astronaut programme, Col Dr Zulkeffeli Mat Jusoh, said in July that most Malaysians thought the programme was a waste of money.
'A recent survey revealed that they still think it's a waste of time and money, and that we're just going to undertake a little science project when our astronaut is sent into space,' he was quoted as saying in The Star newspaper.
He said 'nothing could be further from the truth', as the first angkasawan - Malay for astronaut - will carry out serious experiments.
Today, with the Russian rocket adorned with a Malaysian flag and coat of arms, it would seem that ordinary Malaysians are mainly feeling pride as they get caught up in the hype.
Self-employed Singham Muniandy told The New Straits Times: 'Thumbs up for the expedition. Even though the Americans call our men space flight participants, that is insignificant.
'What is important is that Malaysia is going to space.'
And nine-year-old Taranjit Singh exclaimed: 'Wow! Space. The rocket will go up and up and a Malaysian will be in it. It is nice. I am happy and excited.'
ADDITIONAL INFORMATION FROM ASSOCIATED PRESS