Malaysians over the moon at their first astronaut

KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) — Malaysia celebrated Thursday as its first astronaut hurtled through space on board a Russian Soyuz rocket, in a landmark for the nation which is marking 50 years of independence.

"It's a small step for me, but a great leap for the Malaysian people," said Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, the 35-year-old doctor and part-time model who blasted off late Wednesday from Baikonur in Kazakhstan.

The historic journey dominated national newspapers which devoted dozens of pages to the launch, and photographs showing a smiling Muszaphar inside the craft with a Malaysian flag emblazoned on the sleeve of his spacesuit.

The outpouring of national pride also reached cyberspace, with Malaysia's lively blogosphere giving heavy coverage of the event.

Muszaphar, along with Russian cosmonaut Yury Malenchenko and American Peggy Whitson, will circle the earth for the next two days before docking at the International Space Station (ISS) where he will spend nine days.

"I am very proud that a Malaysian astronaut has gone into space and this is a very proud moment for the nation," a beaming Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said after the launch.

Abdullah watched the event on a satellite feed beamed onto enormous screens at the futuristic Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre. The crowd of more than 2,000 people, many in Malay national dress, cheered wildly at lift-off.

"I got really excited when I saw the launch, I am already interested in science, now I will do my best," said 16-year-old student Syaz Wani Abdul Razak who was one of hundreds of high schoolers packed into the hall.

The event was one of about a dozen public screenings held in Kuala Lumpur, and parties and activities were organised across the country.

At the capital's Independence Square, hundreds of space fans yelled out the national catchcry of "Malaysia Boleh" or "Malaysia Can" as the spacecraft roared away from earth.

Muszaphar underwent more than a year of training at Moscow's Star City after being chosen from thousands of hopefuls in a nationwide competition that generated tremendous excitement here.

Malaysian leaders see the space flight as a milestone for the country which is marking a half-century of independence from British colonial rule, and are already discussing sending another citizen into space.

"If there is another offer to fly on Soyuz or to fly to the ISS, we can consider," Abdullah said, adding that he hoped back-up astronaut Faiz Khaleed who trained alongside Muszaphar would be the next Malaysian in space.

Malaysians were slighted by a reference on the NASA website which listed Muszaphar as a "space flight participant" -- a term reserved for space tourists.

But NASA astronaut Robert Gibson helped restore national pride by insisting he was a fully fledged astronaut, or "angkasawan" in the Malay language.

"He's trained for a year with the Russians. The people in the past who have gone for a ride have not gone for a year but six weeks or seven weeks," Gibson said at the launch.

"Sheikh Muszaphar is eminently qualified to be an astronaut, cosmonaut and researcher aboard Soyuz and aboard the ISS."

Muszaphar arrives on the ISS near the end of the holy month of Ramadan, and has taken along some Malaysian delicacies to share with the crew during this weekend's Eid festival.

One of only a handful of Muslims to have travelled to space, he has said he will try to observe the fasting rules of Ramadan while on his journey.

Malaysian religious authorities have prepared guidelines on how to practise Islam in space, including how to perform the ritual ablutions and hold the prayer position in a weightless environment.

The astronaut project was conceived in 2003 when Russia agreed to send a Malaysian to the space station as part of a billion-dollar purchase of 18 Sukhoi 30-MKM fighter jets.