854 Vie to Become Malaysia's First Astronaut

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

A series of rigorous medicaland psychological tests will be conducted on the successful runners to whittledown 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 Agencydirector-general, Mazlan Othman.

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

The 854 people, including146 women, were chosen from 11,275 Malaysians from all walks of life who hadapplied for the program in 2003.

Maznah said the spaceprogram is estimated to cost around US$25 million (euro20.44 million) but itwill 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 senseof excellence in our youth. It's also to boost our science industry and willbring spin-offs in aviation medicine," she told reporters.

Around 77 percent of thecandidates have a bachelors degree, only two percent are pilots while 62percent 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 thepeople" and serve as an inspiration to the country's youth.

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

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

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

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

"The French havebrought their camembert cheese to space and the Italians a whole tray ofItalian food ... we want to bring a part of Malaysian cuisine that is uniqueinto space as well."

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