April 26, 2006

Malaysia weighs concerns of Muslim space travelers

By Clarence Fernandez

BANGI, Malaysia (Reuters) - As Malaysia prepares to pick
its first astronaut, the country's space agency is hunting for
solutions to the problems it expects devout Muslims to face
while in orbit, such as in which direction to pray.

One of the five pillars of Islam requires the faithful to
pray five times a day, and to face Mecca, the birthplace of
Islam, while doing so. Astronauts aboard spaceships could have
difficulty meeting these requirements.

"Among the astronaut's needs, if he is a Muslim, are
guidelines on performing prayers in space, and other aspects of
life according to Islamic principles," Malaysian government
official Mohd Ruddin Abdul Ghani told a two-day meeting of
scientists and religious experts to thrash out solutions.

There are three Muslims on a shortlist of four candidates
from which Malaysia must pick two in May to begin training as
astronauts. The program was launched two years ago, after
Russia offered the country a free trip into space aboard a
Soyuz spacecraft.

The trip, meant to sweeten a deal for Malaysia's
$900-million purchase of Russian-made fighter planes, will see
the best man or woman blasting off with Russian astronauts in
October 2007 to spend six to eight days aboard the
International Space Station.

The effort aims to boost public support for Prime Minister
Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's push for new "growth industries" such
as biotechnology, space science and information technology to
help broaden Malaysia's economy, which relies heavily on its
reputation as a low-cost manufacturer.

Following Earth time and facing in the direction of Earth
are the key elements to solving the problem, said Zainol Abidin
Abdul Rashid, a professor at the space science institute
attached to the National University of Malaysia.

Zainol said he had written a computer program with the help
of his graduate students to calculate the correct prayer times
and directions for astronauts, once their positions are keyed

"It can be set up on a computer or even a personal digital
assistant, and figuring out your location is as simple as
connecting to the Internet," Zainol told Reuters.

After securing the go-ahead from Islamic experts, he said
he expected to be able to offer free programs downloads from

But other perplexing questions remain -- what about
ablutions before prayers, and how does one kneel in zero

Orthodox answers to these questions include using
alternative cleaning modes, such as tissues or napkins, or
praying in a seated position, strapped into one's chair,
experts at the conference said.

A group of muftis took a pragmatic approach in tackling
these questions in advice recently published on the Web site

"According to an established principle of Islamic
jurisprudence, if for any reason we are unable to fulfil a
certain condition or a prerequisite on which the validity of a
certain act of worship is dependent, then we must still perform
the act without the condition," the site said.