Female engineer to become Malaysia's 1st astronaut
Updated: 2006-09-04 14:03

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia - An ethnic Indian female engineer lost her bid to become Malaysia's first astronaut Monday, as the government whittled the finalists to an army dentist and a hospital medical officer.

Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi announced that either Faiz Khaleed, 26, or Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, 34, will take part in a Russian space expedition next year, likely becoming the first Muslim to launch into orbit in more than two decades.

The announcement dashed the hopes of engineer S. Vanajah, 35, who made headlines in March when she was named the only woman among four finalists who outlasted 11,000 other Malaysians who applied for the astronaut selection process in 2003.

Vanajah, Faiz, Sheikh Muszaphar and Malaysia Airlines pilot Mohammed Faiz Kamaluddin were sent to Moscow's Russian Space Agency for medical and technical tests to determine who would travel on a Russian rocket for a scientific mission on the International Space Station.

Faiz, an armed forces dentist, and Sheikh Muszaphar, a medical officer at the National University Hospital, are expected to return to Russia early next month for further training, the Science and Technology Ministry said in a statement.

But only one will have the chance to spend up to 10 days in October 2007 aboard the ISS.

Vanajah, who was also the only ethnic Indian non-Muslim among the four finalists, has said she hopes to inspire other Malaysian women to participate in science-related projects.

Faiz and Sheikh Muszaphar are both Muslims from Malaysia's majority ethnic Malay community. Ethnic Indians, who are mainly Hindu, are the third largest racial group after the Chinese, comprising about 8 percent of Malaysia's 26 million people.

Officials have said Malaysia's ambition to send someone into orbit could inspire other Muslim countries to embark on space exploration. The only known Muslim astronaut so far is Saudi Arabia's Prince Sultan bin Salman, who went aboard the U.S. shuttle Discovery in 1985.

Officials have estimated Malaysia's space program will cost around US$25 million (euro20 million), but it is being offset as part of a US$900 million (euro750 million) defense deal struck with Moscow in 2003 to buy 18 Sukhoi fighter jets.