September 4, 2006

Malaysian Astronaut to Throw Tea Party in Space

SEPANG, Malaysia -- Malaysia plans to push the boundaries of space travel, by making a cup of tea.

Malaysia will send its first astronaut into the heavens aboard a Russian rocket next year and attempt for the first time to make the nation's favorite hot drink, teh tarik, in space.

"The physics experiment is to see what happens to teh tarik in space," Haniff Omar, head of Malaysia's astronaut selection program, told reporters in all seriousness on Monday after two Malaysian men were short-listed to make the trip.

Making teh tarik (pulled tea) can be tricky and dangerous, even with the help of gravity. Malaysians pour boiling-hot milky tea swiftly and repeatedly from one vessel held high in one hand into another held low, producing a distinctive layer of froth.

Making teh tarik in space would bring Malaysian customs to the attention of a worldwide audience, said Faiz Khaleed, one of the two astronaut candidates.

"Teh tarik is one of the symbols of Malaysia," he said. "I think this is a good idea also to bring something from our country so the world can learn something about our country."

Russia offered Malaysia a free trip into space aboard a Soyuz spacecraft three years ago to sweeten the $900-million sale of Russian-made fighter planes.

Nearly 12,000 Malaysians applied for the chance to be an astronaut, and 894 men and women were picked for the first selection round of fitness tests.

On Monday, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi named medical doctor Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor and Faiz, a military dentist, as the two finalists. Russian space experts will pick one of the two men, both Muslims, to go into orbit on September 2 next year.

The chosen candidate will not become the first Muslim to travel to space. That position is held by Saudi Arabia's prince Sultan bin Salman, who went into space in 1985 on board the space shuttle Discovery, along with six U.S. and French colleagues.