A Malaysian doctor who will spend the last days of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in space has vowed to follow the rituals of his faith even as he hurtles around Earth at 17,000 mph.
Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor lifted off Wednesday in a Soyuz spacecraft from Kazakhstan, en route to the international space station where he will spend about 10 days.
The spacecraft — which also carried an American and a Russian — will take two days to reach the station, a period coinciding with the last days of Ramadan, the month when Muslims fast from dawn to dusk. Sheikh Muszaphar has said he will fast and pray in space, even though clerics said he could delay the fast.
"I am not sure how it would be done but I will share my experiences (with) all the Muslims all over the world when I get back," the 35-year-old Sheikh Muszaphar wrote in his Web journal. "After all, Islam is a way of life and I am quite sure I would not face much difficulties."
Sheikh Muszaphar is taking vacuum-packed Malaysian food, including skewered chicken, banana rolls, fermented soybean cakes and ginger jelly to mark the end of Ramadan.
A bachelor who has become a national heartthrob, the orthopedic surgeon will not be the first Muslim in space — Saudi Prince Sultan bin Salman joined the crew of the shuttle Discovery in 1985 and there have been several others since.
Still, the mission initially presented a dilemma about fulfilling religious duties such as fasting, kneeling for prayers in zero gravity or facing Mecca to pray.
After all, praying five times daily on a craft that goes around Earth 16 times a day would have meant praying 80 times in 24 hours. Also, it is virtually impossible to face Mecca continuously in a craft traveling at such high speed.
Muslims are required to wash their hands, feet, face and hair before prayers — a luxury on the Soyuz where water is so precious that even sweat and urine are recycled.
To get around these problems, 150 Malaysian scholars, scientists, and astronauts brainstormed and published an 18-page booklet of guidelines for Muslim astronauts.
If he follows the guidelines, Sheikh Muszaphar can forgo fasting in space and make up for it when he returns to Earth. He can pray three times a day instead of five, facing any direction, and he can do without the ritual washing.
On Tuesday, Sheikh Muszaphar told reporters his trip will be an inspiration for his Southeast Asian homeland as well as to other Muslims worldwide.
"It's a small step for me, but a great leap for the Malaysian people," he said, rephrasing Neil Armstrong's words after the 1969 moon landing.