As the whole world pay tribute to Neil Armstrong, the first man on Moon, it might be interesting also to highlight the contribution of Muslim scientists who have trodden the same path, thereby making “a giant leap for mankind”, as Armstrong put it in one of his famous quotes. So we present to you the article below, first published in August 2007, to shed light on the history of Muslim astronauts.
Malaysia is the 1st Muslim state with an already established space program to send an astronaut to space.
Although Muslims are all the buzz when it comes to talking about politics, there is little mention of them when we hear about space sciences or space exploration. Muslims have always been interested in studying the skies, and great advances were made in the field of astronomy during the heydays of Muslim civilization. Recent history, however, has seen little participation on the part of Muslim countries in the international efforts of developing space sciences. But this is about to change.
For decades only the United States and the former Soviet Union were able to mount the necessary financial and human resources to tackle the “final frontier,” while other countries took long to materialize similar ambitions. Today, several countries are eager to join the club with only China being able so far to independently launch manned missions to the edges of space.
Although not as far ahead as China, Malaysia is still set to become the first Muslim state with an already established space program to send an astronaut to space. The launch aboard the Russian Soyuz TMA-11 spacecraft in October this year was made possible as part of a billion dollar fighterjet deal between the two nations.
The History of Muslims in Space
Eight Muslims traveled to space so far. Top right: Al-Saud, Faris, Mohmand, Aubakirov. Bottom right: Manarov, Sharipov, Musabayev, Ansari. But Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, an orthopedic surgeon at the Hospital Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, will not be the first Muslim to cross the 100-km boundary above Earth considered to be the defining line for outer space. In fact, eight Muslims have already undergone that feat.
The first ever Muslim to fly to space was Prince Sultan bin Salman AbdulAziz Al-Saud from Saudi Arabia. In 1985 Al-Saud joined the crew of mission STS-51G on board the American space shuttle Discovery as a payload specialist to deliver the ARABSAT 1-B communication satellite into orbit. With his flight, Al-Saud not only became the first Muslim in space but also the first member of royalty to go there.
In the same year of the completion of his mission, Al-Saud helped in founding the Association of Space Explorers. This is a nonprofit professional organization that brings together astronauts and cosmonauts from around the world. He also served on its board of directors for several years. Next came Syrian Muhammed Faris who, in July 1987, joined the crew of Russian mission Soyuz TM-3. Originally a navigation pilot with a rank of colonel in the Syrian Air Force, Faris flew as research cosmonaut to the Soviet space station Mir.
Five months later, Azerbaijani Musa Manarov flew in December 1987 as part of the Russian Soyuz TM-4 mission to Mir. Originally a colonel in the Soviet Union’s Air Force, Manarov joined the mission as flight engineer. Along with his fellow crew members, they became the first ever to spend a whole year in space, returning back to Earth in December 1988. Manarov flew again as flight engineer as part of the Soyuz TM-11 mission in December 1990, this time spending a year and three months in space during which he performed more than 20 hours of spacewalk.
While still in space during his first mission in August 1988, Manarov was joined by another Muslim from Afghanistan aboard space station Mir. A pilot in the Afghan Air Force, Abdul Ahad Mohmand flew aboard the Soyuz TM-6 mission as research cosmonaut and spent eight days on Mir conducting experiments along with his crewmates. Mohmand, however, is remembered in history for saving his mission and crew’s life in what would have been a space disaster.
Had it not been for Mohmand’s instincts, the Soyuz capsule would have been abandoned without the propulsion system, and the crew would have perished suspended in space. After leaving space station Mir and on the return flight to Earth, the engine on Mohmand’s Soyuz capsule failed to fire sufficiently for reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere to land. It was decided that the capsule would remain in orbit around Earth to run more tests before moving further.
The two crew members waited in the capsule for Mission Control on the ground to direct them on the next step to take. Although Mohmand was not piloting the capsule, his instinct as a fighter pilot told him that he should check the monitors. That’s when he noticed that the program that failed to fire the engine appropriately was still running and that it had assumed that the reentry phase was still in progress. Upon reentry a Soyuz capsule is no longer in need of its propulsion system and the program is supposed to eject it, which is what it was moving to do even though the capsule was still in space.
As time passed for Mission Control to assess the problem with the ignition, the program continued to countdown to jettison the engine. With less than a minute before detachment, Mohmand noticed what was happening and quickly alerted the pilot who immediately shut down the program.
The crew remained an entire day in their small cabin space inside the capsule as it orbited Earth awaiting Mission Control’s assessment and directions, which once complete was communicated to the pilot. In order to descended to Earth, the pilot had to override the problem with the navigation program. Had it not been for Mohmand’s instincts, the capsule would have been abandoned without the propulsion system, and the crew would have perished suspended in space. (Oberg) It wasn’t for 10 more years that another Muslim went up to space. This time it was Tokhtar Aubakirov from Kazakhstan. In 1991, Aubakirov joined the Soyuz TM-13 crew to Mir and spent eight days in space, even though he had not completed his professional training as a cosmonaut.
Another Kazakh followed soon, however, in 1994 on board the Soyuz TM-19. Talgat Musabayev flew as flight engineer for this mission and later commanded two other flights in 1998 and 2001. The last mission, Soyuz TM-32 became famous for carrying the first ever paying space tourist to the International Space Station (ISS), the successor of the Russian space station Mir.
“The move has spurred the setting up of commercial spaceports around the world including Ras Al-Khaimah in United Arab Emirates.”
Musabayev’s second mission on Suyoz TM-27 would only arrive at space station Mir on January 29, 1998, two days before another mission, STS-89, was set to leave. This would be the second time two Muslims would meet in space, since the crew that was to leave the space station included cosmonaut mission specialist Salihzan Shakirovich Sharipov from the American space shuttle Endeavour’s mission STS-89.
Originally a fighter pilot and flight trainer from Uzbekistan, Sharipov flew another mission in 2004 dubbed Expedition 10 that lasted about six months in space at the ISS. He is planned to be part of the prime crew of Expedition 18 as well, set to take off to the ISS in July 2008.
Sharipov shares with two other Muslims, Musabayev and Manarov, spots in the top 50 list of total time spent in space based on a 2006 count, occupying the 48th, 25th, and 8th places on the list respectively. (Astronauts and Cosmonauts)
But record breaking does not end with professional Muslim astronauts. Iranian-American Anousheh Ansari became the first female private space tourist in September 2006. Traveling aboard the Soyuz TMA-9 as part of the Expedition 14 mission, Ansari also became the first person to blog from space.
Ansari’s love for space exploration started at an early age, and she used her family’s fortune to found the Ansari X PRIZE which spurred international interest in commercial space flight. “I actually wrote down a prayer for the protection of the astronauts of the mission … and they took that first surah of the Qur’an to the moon.”
The prize of US$10 million was designated to the first team to send up a private spacecraft carrying three people to the 100-km boundary of space and back safely twice within a two week period. According to the Ansari X PRIZE website, 26 teams from seven nations joined the race, and on October 24, 2004, American team Mojave Aerospace Ventures won the prize with their SpaceShipOne rocket plane. Since then SpaceShipOne has been bought by British tycoon Sir Richard Bronson creating the company Virgin Galactic which intends to launch commercial space flights within the coming two years. Ansari herself went on to develop her own project in partnership with the Russian Federal Space Agency and Space Adventures (the commercial company that put her and three other tourists in space) developing suborbital passenger spaceships. The move has spurred the setting up of commercial spaceports around the world including Ras Al-Khaimah in United Arab Emirates. (Region’s High Flyers Prepare for Lift-Off)
A Message of Peace
‘Marhaban, ahlan min Endeavour, elaykom salam’ While the first Muslim went to space in 1985, yet a piece of Islam had traveled there much earlier. In June 1971, the manned Apollo 15 mission flew to the moon with much concern over the safety of its members as new equipment, including the rover car, meant that changes were done to the spacecraft Endeavour for the first time.
“[The astronauts] were talking with us and I was telling them that ‘what I would like to do is to give you a page of the Qur’an, the first surah of the Qur’an, Al-Fatihah, and that would put further protection [on the mission]’ ” recalled Dr. Farouk El-Baz, then chairman of the Astronaut Training Group, in a recent radio interview with IslamOnline.net.
“And the commander of the mission said, ‘Absolutely! We [can use] all the help we can get ‘ So I actually took Al-Fatihah, the first page of the Qur’an … and it was [written] in Arabic and [translated into] English, and on that sheet of paper I actually wrote down a prayer for the protection of the astronauts of the mission … and they took that first surah of the Qur’an to the moon.”
Egyptian-American El-Baz, a geologist by training, was also secretary of the Landing Site Selection Committee and Principal Investigator of Visual Observations and Photography after he had joined the Apollo program in 1967. In addition to teaching the astronauts how to identify rocks to bring back to Earth and how to make sense of satellite imagery of the lunar surface, he also taught members of the Apollo 15 mission how to send a message of peace to the world from space.
“One of them I taught some Arabic so that he would say when we see each other ‘Hello’ in Arabic ‘Ahlan wa sahlan’ … and then taught him a statement to say from the moon .. and he said ‘Marhaban, ahlan min Endeavour, elaykom salam’ [Hello, greetings from Endeavour, peace be to you].”
As Malaysia sends up its first astronaut, people from around the world will be listening in to what the ninth Muslim in space will have to say. Like medieval Muslim explorers who tackled new frontiers, Shukor will have a chance to put Muslim nations back on the cutting edge of discovery. Perhaps it won’t be long before space travel catches the imagination of other Muslim nations as well, and a new age of exploration would be born in this part of the world.