Malaysia's first astronaut Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor (left) and his backup Faiz Khaleed.
Credit: Malaysian National Space Agency.
STAR CITY, Russia (AP) -- Among the things Malaysia's first astronaut will be worrying about next month: How does an observant Muslim pray toward Mecca while soaring hundreds of miles above the Earth?
Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor will blast off aboard a Russian-built Soyuz space craft en route to the International Space Station along with Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko and U.S. astronaut Peggy Whitson.
They blast off from the Russian-leased Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Oct. 10.
Speaking at a news conference Thursday at Russia's cosmonaut training center in Star City, on Moscow's outskirts, Shukor said during his 10 days in space, he hoped to perform life science and other research, but said he would not ignore the responsibilities of his faith.
"I do agree that I am a Muslim, I am Islamic, but my main priority is more of conducting experiments,'' the 35-year-old astronaut said. "As a Muslim, I do hope to do my responsibilities, I do hope to fast in space.''
After months of discussion and two international conferences, the Islamic National Fatwa Council came up with guidelines as to how Muslim astronauts should observe daily rituals. The rules were published in 12-page booklet titled "Muslim Obligations in the International Space Station.''
Observant Muslims are required to turn toward Mecca -- located in Saudi Arabia -- and kneel and pray five times a day. However, with the space station circling the Earth 16 times a day, kneeling in zero gravity to pray -- or facing toward Mecca for that matter -- makes fulfilling those religious obligations difficult.
Malaysia's National Fatwa Council ruled that Muslim astronauts will not be required to kneel to pray if the absence of gravity makes it too hard. Facing Mecca while praying will be left to the "best abilities'' of the astronaut, the council said.
Adding to the difficulties is the fact that the launch coincides with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan -- when Muslims are expected to fast from dawn until dusk. The fatwa decided the fasting may be postponed until returning to Earth.
Other exceptions include allowing simple silent prayer if performing physical rituals is impossible.
Shukor will return to Earth Oct. 20 along with two members of the station's current crew -- cosmonauts Fyodor Yurchikhin and Oleg Kotov.
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