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Saturday September 22, 2007

Tapping into space research


WITH their good looks and charm, astronaut candidates Dr Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor and Kapt Dr Faiz Khaleed certainly have the star quality that comes with being the first Malaysian in space. 

However, the real “star” of the Angkasawan programme, as with any venture since Man first launched a rocket into space, is the science behind it.  

Space science encompasses more than rocket propulsion and liquid fuel technologies. It gives scientists opportunities to conduct experiments under conditions impossible to simulate on earth. 

These include microgravity and intense ultraviolet radiation, and tests that will one day see innovations from something as mundane as creating better detergents to one as significant as saving lives stricken with cancer. 

Back-up boy: Kapt Dr Faiz Haleed smiles during a final news conference in the Star City outside Moscow on Thursday -- AP
“The programme is thus a precursor to us doing more things in space, even if Malaysia will never again send a man up there,” said National Space Agency (Angkasa) director-general Prof Datuk Dr Mazlan Othman, who mooted the idea of space experiments back in 2003. 

She said these experiments in space were part of the “bigger agenda” of generating interest in space science and technology among Malaysians. 

Letters to local universities were sent out as early as one-and-a-half years ago asking for proposals for experiments but even then, the agency had to hold workshops to stir up interest among the scientists about the upcoming space trip. 

“Our scientists had to go on a learning curve because we are asking them to think of new things,” said Dr Mazlan. 

Dr Sheikh Muszaphar or Kapt Dr Faiz – depending on the candidate at the launch date – will carry out experiments on board the International Space Station relating to the growth and characteristics of liver cancer and leukaemia cells, and microbes in space, and the crystallisation of various proteins. 

While the experiments relating to liver cancer and leukaemia cells, and microbes will benefit general science and medical research, the crystallisation of proteins, lipases in this case, will directly benefit local industries. 

Lipases are a type of protein enzymes used in the manufacturing of products as diverse as cosmetics to textiles and the opportunity to grow these in space will mean a possibility for Malaysian scientists to take a crack at an industry worth some US$2.2bil (RM7.7bil) worldwide by producing these locally. 

“These proteins can later be commercialised and the benefit for Malaysians from this space experiment is immediate,” said Dr Mazlan. 

The Malaysian astronaut himself is going to be a scientific experiment as his heart and respiratory rates, skin temperature and blood pressure before, during and after the space flight will come under intense scrutiny and monitoring by the various research institutes. 

Contrary to popular belief - or disbelief, rather - this year’s launch date was chosen well in advance to coincide with the 50th Merdeka celebrations. 

“It is also the golden anniversary of Russia's Sputnik launch,” said Dr Mazlan.  

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