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Wed 2 May 2007 02:50 AM

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Cosmic faith

Rob Corder examines the additional challenges that face Muslim astronauts.

The UAE's first space tourist has been revealed - but what additional challenges face Muslim astronauts?

For Virgin Galactic space tourists the answer is, not many.

The spaceship travels at 4800 kph, three times the speed of sound, to break free of the earth’s atmosphere. Its gives its passengers the unique view of the world from outer space; the incomparable feeling of weightlessness; and the eerie experience of total silence in frictionless space.

But the trip is short. By the time Ibrahim Sharaf has unbuckled his seatbelt, floated around the cabin and soaked up the view, the pilot will be asking him to retake his seat for reentry.

In-flight meals, ablutions and prayers facing Mecca will not be on the agenda of the UAE’s first astronaut.

The same cannot be said for a Muslim astronaut from Malaysia who is preparing to join a Russian mission to the International Space Station where he will stay for a considerable time.

The Space Station orbits the earth 16 times per day at a speed of 27,400 kph. Keeping track of which way to pray to Mecca is therefore a considerable challenge, made even more difficult with zero gravity.

That lack of gravity makes pre-prayer ablutions more difficult as well. Water is a priceless commodity in space, and its usage must be strictly controlled.

Malaysian religious authorities are insisting that such challenges are tackled on the Space Station. “Circumstances on the ISS that are different from circumstances on earth are not an obstacle for an astronaut to fulfil a Muslim’s obligations,” says Mustafa Abdul Rahman, head of Malaysia’s Department of Islamic Development.

Details of how these challenges will be met have not been finalised by the Russian space mission, but there is some precedent they can follow.

Two Muslims have been to space before. Saudi Arabia’s Prince Sultan bin Salman travelled aboard the Discovery space shuttle in 1985, and Anousheh Ansari, an Iranian American space tourist visited the ISS last year.

Neither had special provisions made to accommodate their faith.

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