updated 4/26/2006 5:48:53 PM ET 2006-04-26T21:48:53

Malaysia's ambition to send an astronaut to space next year should inspire other Muslim countries to embark on space exploration, an Islamic professor said Tuesday.

However, Muslims who travel to space must tackle religious challenges such as performing prayers at zero gravity and ensuring that their meals fulfill Islamic dietary conditions, said Saiyad Nizamuddin Ahmad, a United Arab Emirates-based university professor in Islamic studies.

"We are all very hopeful that the efforts by the Malaysian government will inspire other Muslim countries to inaugurate space initiatives," Ahmad said on the sidelines of a conference in Kuala Lumpur to discuss Islamic perspectives on space expeditions.

The only Muslim who has flown into orbit so far is Saudi Arabia's Prince Sultan bin Salman, who went aboard the shuttle Discovery in 1985, Ahmad said.

A Malaysian might be the next Muslim in space, as the government plans to send a citizen on a Russian-led scientific mission to the international space station in October 2007. Three of the four finalists in the country's astronaut program are Muslims, while one is a Hindu.

It is unclear whether the Saudi prince encountered any problems in determining the direction of the Saudi holy city of Mecca — toward which Muslims are expected to pray five times a day — while orbiting the earth aboard Discovery.

Mazlan Othman, director general of Malaysia's National Space Agency, voiced hopes that Muslim nations could consider technical cooperation to send more people on similar expeditions.

"Muslim countries so far are not able to send an astronaut to space on their own, because we still need to partner with countries such as the U.S., China and Russia," Mazlan said.

Malaysia, which chairs the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference, is among Southeast Asia's wealthiest and most industrialized countries. More than 11,000 people in the nation of 26 million people applied for the astronaut selection process in 2003.

Ahmad, the university professor, said funding for space programs would not be a problem for rich, oil-producing Middle East nations, especially if OIC members pool resources and expertise.

"The Muslim world suffers plenty of problems, especially with its image because of issues like terrorism," Ahmad said. "We should have an inspiring example that comes from our own, instead of looking to the U.S., England or Europe all the time."

Officials estimate Malaysia's program will cost around $25 million, but it will be offset in a defense deal struck with Moscow to buy Sukhoi fighter jets.

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