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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Muslim Astronaut Worries About Mecca Prayers

ReutersSheikh Muszaphar Shukor
STAR CITY, Moscow Region -- Among the things Malaysia's first astronaut will be worrying about next month: How does an observant Muslim pray toward Mecca while soaring hundreds of kilometers above the Earth?

Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, 35, is one of three people who will blast off aboard a Soyuz spacecraft next month en route to the international space station. Shukor -- along with cosmonaut Yury Malenchenko and U.S. astronaut Peggy Whitson -- was officially approved for his mission Thursday by a Russian space flight commission.

They blast off from the Russian-leased Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Oct. 10.

Speaking at a news conference at the cosmonaut training center at Star City, on Moscow's outskirts, Shukor said that during his 10 days in space, he hoped to perform life science and other research, but said also that he would not ignore the responsibilities of his faith while soaring some 350 kilometers above the planet.

"I do agree that I am a Muslim, I am Islamic, but my main priority is more of conducting experiments," he said.

"As a Muslim, I do hope to do my responsibilities, I do hope to fast in space," he said.

After months of discussion and two international conferences, the Islamic National Fatwa Council came up with guidelines as to how Muslim astronauts should observe daily rituals. The rules were published in 12-page booklet titled "Muslim Obligations in the International Space Station."

Observant Muslims are required to turn toward Mecca -- located in Saudi Arabia -- and kneel and pray five times a day. With the space station circling the Earth 16 times a day, however, washing one's face and hands, and kneeling in zero gravity to pray -- or facing toward Mecca for that matter -- makes fulfilling those religious obligations more difficult.

Malaysia's National Fatwa Council ruled that Muslim astronauts would not be required to kneel to pray if the absence of gravity makes it too hard, nor would they have to wash with water -- a simple wet towel will do.

Facing Mecca while praying will be left to the "best abilities" of the astronaut, the council said.

Adding to the difficulties is the fact that the launch coincides with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan -- when Muslims are expected to fast from dawn until dusk. The fatwa decided the fasting may be postponed until returning to Earth.

Other exceptions include allowing simple silent prayer if performing physical rituals would be impossible.

Shukor will return to Earth Oct. 20 along with two members of the station's current crew, cosmonauts Fyodor Yurchikhin and Oleg Kotov.

Malenchenko and Whitson will remain aboard and be joined later in the month by astronaut Daniel Tani, arriving with the next U.S. shuttle Discovery.