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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Malaysia's 4 Would-Be Astronauts Take a Bow

MTFrom left, Faiz, Khaleed, Siva and Muszaphar at Friday's news conference.
The first Malaysian to rocket into space will be a dentist. Or an orthopedic surgeon. Or maybe a pilot or an engineer.

One thing can be said for sure about the next international guest on the Russian spacecraft: He -- or she -- will have beat out a lot of people for the distinction of being the first person from the mostly Muslim, Southeast Asian nation to leave the Earth's atmosphere.

For now, only the finalists are known, with Federal Space Agency and Rosoboronexport officials introducing Muhammad Faiz, 34; Faiz Khaleed, 26; Sheikh Muszaphar, 34; and 35-year-old Vanajah Siva, the only woman in the group, in a news conference on Friday.

The news conference, at Rosoboronexport's central Moscow headquarters, included a backdrop consisting of Malaysian and Russian flags and the state-owned arms trader's logo. Below the logo was the slogan "Total Solutions for Defense," in English.

In August or September, space officials, with the Malaysian government, will select their newest astronaut and a backup.

It's been a long and tortuous trek for the four would-be space travelers.

Back in 2003, as part of an arms deal in which Moscow sold Kuala Lumpur 18 Sukhoi fighter jets worth more than $900 million, Malaysian authorities invited everyone in the country over 21 to apply for a chance to go to space.

They received 11,000 applications. Those applications were whittled down to 894 candidates. Candidates endured numerous challenges, including survival tests in the jungle and at sea. The four finalists were announced in March by Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak.

Two weeks ago, the finalists began a round of medical tests at Star City, outside Moscow.

After Malaysia's first angkasawan, or astronaut, is announced, the winner and runner-up will start a year-long training program. The program includes another survival test -- this one in Siberia.

The launch is scheduled for September 2007, said Yury Nosenko, deputy head of the Federal Space Agency. Once in space, the Malaysian astronaut will travel to the International Space Station.

The Malaysian-Russian flight comes as Rosoboronexport is moving into other business sectors. Last year, the firm took control of ailing carmaker AvtoVAZ and the country's helicopter makers.

It is now reportedly in talks to acquire a stake in VSMPO-Avisma, the large titanium producer, and two military shipyards in St. Petersburg.

Russian and Malaysian officials at Friday's briefing said they hoped the project would help boost bilateral military cooperation.

"I would like to see more cooperation beyond this cosmonaut program," said Tan Sri Subhan Jasmon, secretary general of Malaysia's Defense Ministry.

As for the finalists, flying into space on the Russian craft would be the culmination of a childhood dream.

"Ever since I was 10, I wanted to go to space," said Muszaphar, the orthopedic surgeon. One of his chief goals, if he's tapped, would be to get Malaysian children to "change their mindset about science and space."

The space flight is also a matter of national pride.

"We would like to show the world that Malaysia is capable of sending a cosmonaut into space," Faiz said.

Earlier this year, a Brazilian astronaut hitched a ride on a Russian spacecraft. It was the first time a Latin American had been to space.

Siva said the Malaysian space traveler would bring samples of Malaysian cuisine.

She lamented that more women had not applied to go to space; the engineer was one of 146 women out of nearly 900 candidates.

"From the very beginning, there was not enough participation by women," Siva said.

Siva said she took off two months from her job at a Canadian-owned factory, Teknion Furniture Systems. At the end of the month, she must go back.

If she is selected, Siva said, she'll quit her job to return to Russia.

Siva said it wasn't hard to compete with men, but called the jungle "bad."

"It's basically competing with myself," she said, adding that she was looking forward to testing her mettle further. The final training, far from civilization, will feature jumping into icy water, she said.

Asked if she aspired to be Malaysia's Yury Gagarin, Siva said she'd rather follow in the footsteps of the first woman to go to space: "More like Valentina Tereshkova."