A version of this story first came out in the October 2011 issue of Lifestyle Asia magazine
Astronaut, surgeon, and scientist, Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor is living proof that nothing is impossible to those who believe in the power of their dreams
By Paul John Caña
Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor looked up at the stars when he was a young boy. Space was a frontier that thrilled him to no end, and popular science fiction movies and TV shows like Star Trek and Star Wars further fueled his fascination with the cosmos. “Ever since I was 10 years old I knew I wanted to be an astronaut,” he says. While countless other little boys and girls have a similar response to the question of what they want to be when they grow up, only a handful ever get to fulfill this ambition. Muszaphar is one of them. He is the first Malaysian and the second person from Southeast Asia to go into space.
Born in Kuala Lumpur, Muszaphar earned a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery degree from Kasturba Medical College in Manipal, India. He was pursuing a Master of Orthopedic Surgery degree in the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia when the opportunity of a lifetime presented itself. When Malaysia purchased 18 Russian-made Sukhoi Su-30 MKM fighter jets in 2003, part of the deal was for Russia to send one Malaysian citizen to the International Space Station onboard a Russian spaceflight mission. It was for this purpose that Malaysia initiated the Angkasawan (astronaut) Program.
Over 11,400 would-be astronauts submitted an application for the program. The number was whittled down after a series of grueling physical, psychological, and emotional tests. “They were looking for someone who didn’t have so much as a tooth cavity or any kind of scar. The training was exceptionally rigid. We would spin around in an aero chamber or go up to 27,000 feet to test how strong our lungs were. We stayed in minus 45-degree weather in Siberia, chopping wood for heat, and we camped out for three days in an island in the Black Sea in Ukraine. All of it was to see how far we could push ourselves and how much we could endure.”
After a battery of tests, Muszaphar and one other finalist made the cut. They went through 18 months of even more punishing training under Russia’s space program. In the end though, it was Muszaphar who was selected to fly the space mission Soyuz TMA-11. “I am not the strongest person. I am not the best. But I think it was because of my mental strength and confidence that they chose me over 11,000 other applicants. I’ve always been competitive. I was brought up with five brothers, I hate to lose. I think that has been my strength all the while. In order to succeed one must have a strong mental attitude.”
The then-34 year-old surgeon was launched into space on October 10, 2007. He and his fellow astronauts drifted in space for two days before docking with the ISS. Muszaphar brought live cell cultures with him to study during the mission and conducted research on cells that cause blood, liver and bone cancer in the hopes of finding a cure. He also filmed himself doing experiments for schoolchildren. As the first Malaysian angkasawan, his primary motivation was to create more awareness on the importance of science and technology and inspire his countrymen and the rest of Southeast Asia. Muszaphar also made history as the first Muslim to go to space during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. It is because of his mission that the Islamic National Fatwa Council drew up the first comprehensive guidebook for Muslims in space, which details issues such as how to pray in a low-gravity environment, how to locate Mecca from the ISS, how to determine prayer times, and those surrounding fasting.
Muszaphar returned to earth after 12 days orbiting space. “When I was up there, that’s when I realized how beautiful and magical the earth is. It really changed my perspective in life. I thought about global issues like world hunger, the destruction of the environment and how I could help in a concrete way.”
It’s been years since Muszaphar’s fateful voyage, but he’s been working nonstop since then to spread the message of hope, hard work and belief in the power of dreams not just to his countrymen in Malaysia but all over the world. He is still practicing medicine as an orthopedic surgeon and is also a lecturer at a university in his native Malaysia. Space is only the beginning he says, and in the next few years, he hopes to become a licensed pilot and spend time working with children in Africa. He also accepts speaking engagements, particularly to schoolchildren and young people.
In July 2011, he visited Manila on the invitation of Asia Society. “I am here to tell you that no dream is too big and that nothing is impossible,” he said to an auditorium filled with college students of the Far Eastern University. “No matter what other people say, believe in yourself and everything will fall into place.” It is good advice from someone who only used to look up at the stars and ended up flying out to space to reach them.