Thursday, 2 August 2012

Spacemen of the world (4) – Malaysia’s Can-or-not

Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor looked radiantly happy in this official photograph in his full astronaut suit.

Malaysia has a grandiose plan for the future; it is so ambitious that it stunned the world when the then prime minister Mahathir Mohamed unveiled his dark desire for the country to become a worldly nation with technological advancement, viz. the Wawasan 2020 (Vision 2020). In simple language the former PM wanted Malaysia to be an advanced country just like the European community nations, the USA, Japan and the like by 2020. Though most of these highly industrialized nations laughed and sneered at Malaysia’s effort in blowing one’s trumpet out of proportion, and were skeptical whether the vision was a realistic and viable one with accountability, their missions in Kuala Lumpur did bless the country with good tidings and best wishes in its future endeavors, so as to remain amicable with the host country.  

The first Malaysian in space-Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor was launched into space to reach the International Space Station aboard the Soyuz TMA-11 on Oct 10th '07 and returned on Oct 21st '07 aboard the Soyuz TMA-10 after spending 10 days at the ISS.

On Nov 25th 2006 the agriculture ministry’s parliamentary secretary Rohani Abdul Halim told the floor that an astronaut of Malaysian origin would be picked and sent aboard the Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft to the outer space. (One would wonder why an official of Agriculture ministry involved in this program.) His task would be making Teh Tarik (‘Pulled’ Tea) and play congkat (a favorite pastime for children and rural folks.) as well as painting a batik motif while in the spaceship. It all sounded very childish and frivolous that other countries would doubt Malaysia’s actual intention of participating in the Soyuz space mission. Rohani went further to explain that placing the nation’s astronaut in space would cost the country nothing; it was supposedly part of a package negotiated with and agreed upon by the Russian with regards to Malaysia’s shrewish and daring purchase of some Russian Sukhoi Su-30MKM fighter jets. The defense ministry would have to fork out a whooping US$900million for the purchase. The actual cost of the Angkasawan Program (National Space Agency) to send a Malaysian into outer space was US$26million. Eventually the science and technology minister Jamaluddin Jarjis cleared the air to say no such thing as teh-tarik making and congkat playing would be demonstrated on board the Russian spaceship. Acknowledging that the nation was rather short of the technology, qualified human resource and the hardware, he said the objective of the space program was to create a public awareness regarding the importance of science and space technology, which in turn would create jobs in the future.

Sheikh Muszaphar was all smiles in this picture with his crew-mates Yuri Malenchenko(Russia) and Peggy Whitson (USA)

With such drastic and crude decision made, criticisms were many as most citizens claimed that as a developing nation, Malaysia could ill afford the extravaganza. Apart from that it did not prove anything in Malaysia’s glory to have an astronaut as the person was going to hitch a ride to travel onboard a Soviet spacecraft, not a spaceship designed, developed, built, controlled and owned by Malaysia. He would proudly be known as a space traveler or tourist, being sponsored by the nation, nothing more than that. However the recalcitrant PM of the country Mahathir Mohamed was adamant to go ahead with his whimsical project.

In later part 2006 Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor and Faiz Khaleed were picked among hundreds of candidates to be sent to Star City, Russia for their 18 months of training to prepare for their possible flight into aerospace as only one of them would be chosen. Sheikh Muszaphar eventually was bestowed the honor of being the first Malaysian in space when he was launched aboard the Soyuz TMA-11 on Oct. 10th 2007. He was quick to tell his country folks that he would carry out some medical tests on cells as he had been a qualified medical doctor. Muszaphar returned to earth on board the Soyuz TMA-10 after spending 10 days at the ISS – International Space Station. He became a celebrity alright as he toured the country to visit schools to inspire the pupils and students to be science and technology oriented with his speeches and display of his many photo-shots. Sheikh Muszaphar was humble to say that he did not expect to be welcome upon his return like a celebrity; the space journey was part of his national duty to the country.  

This was the Russian space vehicle that blasted off to send Sheikh Muszaphar and his crew-mates into aerospace aboard
the Soyuz TMA11 from Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Upon reviewing, one would feel strongly that it was true the space odyssey of a Malaysian did not prove anything substantial to call it an achievement; except we all knew that it cost a bomb to send one country man up there aboard the Soviet spacecraft. As for the grandly propagated Angkasawan Program, the citizen heard nothing further after Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor’s space adventure. It is good to set a target of vision for a developing nation; but we are now entering the second half of 2012, yet we do not see nor feel the ambience of a developed nation coming sooner as 2020 is not very far away. The Malaysian governmental leaders refused to be aware of or acknowledge that the exodus of the best brains out of the country began some half a century ago. These bigoted ostriches – The ruling governmental leaders prefer to bury their heads in the sand but are not willing to find out what lies beneath the sand.  

Alan CY Kok

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