KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP)--Malaysia's first astronaut will be chosen from a shortlist of 854 people, who now must prove their physical fitness by running 3.5 kilometers (2 miles) in less than 20 minutes, an official said Tuesday.

A series of rigorous medical and psychological tests will be conducted on the successful runners to whittle down the list to five to 10 people. They will be sent to Russia in January for the final test to pick two future astronauts, said National Space Agency director-general, Mazlan Othman.

Only one of them will, however, go into space in 2007 as part of a six to eight day scientific mission on board the International Space Station.

The 854 people, including 146 women, were chosen from 11,275 Malaysians from all walks of life who had applied for the program in 2003.

Maznah said the space program is estimated to cost around US$25 million (euro20.44 million) but it will be offset as part of a US$900 million defense deal struck with Moscow in 2003 to buy 18 Sukhoi Su-30 MKM fighter jets.

"Around 98 percent of (the 854 candidates) are under 40. This program is aimed at inculcating a sense of excellence in our youth. It's also to boost our science industry and will bring spin-offs in aviation medicine," she told reporters.

Around 77 percent of the candidates have a bachelors degree, only two percent are pilots while 62 percent work in the private sector and 20 percent are civil servants.

Apart from being "superbly fit, physically and psychologically," Maznah said, Malaysia's first astronaut must ''not be an elitist but someone that can relate to the people" and serve as an inspiration to the country's youth.

Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak will flag off the first batch of 62 candidates in the 3.5 kilometer (2 mile) run Saturday in central Pahang state, while others will take part in the run to be held simultaneously in five other states on Sept. 3.

Officials had said earlier this year that the Malaysian astronaut will carry his nation's cuisine on the space mission, including "roti canai" (pronounced chen-ai), unleavened lightly fried bread and ''teh tarik,'' or heavily-sweetened milky tea.

Maznah said local scientists are studying ways to bring the food to the space station.

"We want to bring part of our cuisine and culture into space as well," she said.

"The French have brought their camembert cheese to space and the Italians a whole tray of Italian food ... we want to bring a part of Malaysian cuisine that is unique into space as well."