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Next space station crew ready for firsts

The next Soyuz craft bound for the international space station is due to carry the outpost's first female commander as well as the first Malaysian to fly in space.
Malaysian astronaut candidate Shukor climbs out of a space capsule during training outside the Crimean Black Sea city of Sevastopol
Malaysian astronaut candidate Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor climbs out of a space capsule during training outside the Crimean Black Sea city of Sevastopol on July 19.Reuters file
/ Source: Reuters

Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, set to become the first Malaysian to fly into space, said on Monday that his goal for the October flight is a lofty one — to inspire his country to greater things.

The 34-year-old physician will fly to the international space station aboard a Soyuz spacecraft in a deal his government arranged with the Russians as part of a $1 billion purchase of Russian fighter jets.

On the Soyuz with him will be Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, who became the first human to be married while in orbit; and NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, who will take over as the first female commander of the station.

Shukor will be the latest short-term passenger to fly to the station, following the same flight plan as several millionaires who have paid for the ride from their own pockets. He said at a news conference at NASA’s Johnson Space Center that he plans to spend his time in space conducting experiments, capturing the attention of his fellow Malaysians in the process.

He said he wants his voyage to inspire an interest in math and science among the young, and thereby help improve Malaysia’s future.

“Being the first Malaysian angkasawan [astronaut] has been a big responsibility on my shoulders,” Shukor said. “Hopefully the space program, it will change the entire nation to look forward to become a better developed nation.”

Shukor was selected from among 11,000 candidates in what he described as “a very tiring process.”

Since then, he has been training with astronauts and cosmonauts, who on Monday said he appears to have the right stuff for spaceflight.

“He has extensive knowledge, and he has the right quality of character for doing this operation. I expect that everything should be OK,” Malenchenko said through an interpreter.

Whitson will replace current commander Fyodor Yurchikhin, who along with Oleg Kotov will return home with Shukor on the Soyuz after a few days handing operations over to the new crew members.

Whitson, 47, said she hoped her command of the space station would attract more young women into math, science and engineering.

“I think it’s important for young women to see where we’re headed in the future and be a part of the exploration as well, so I hope I can serve as a role model,” she said.