Malaysia and space ― thoughts from the nation’s first astrophysicist

Mazlan speaking about ‘Malaysia in the New Space Age’ during a Ted X talk at Sunway University. ― Screengrab via Youtube/Ted X Talks
Mazlan speaking about ‘Malaysia in the New Space Age’ during a Ted X talk at Sunway University. ― Screengrab via Youtube/Ted X Talks

PETALING JAYA, July 5 ― On October 10, 2007, Datuk Dr Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor Sheikh Mustapha made history by becoming the first Malaysian astronaut, but ever since there has been little or no talk of “Malaysia” and “space”.

Why is that?

Malaysia’s first-ever astrophysicist Emeritus Prof Datuk Dr Mazlan Othman said it boils down to diminished interest space travel and space in general.

During her stint as Malaysian National Space Agency’s Angkasa Programme director general, she said space was the only thing that Malaysians were talking about.

“It was not part of our plan initially (to send a Malaysian to space).

“We were focusing on building the infrastructure for aerospace, like the National Observatory in Langkawi, but nobody noticed that because all they wanted was a Malaysian astronaut,” said Mazlan in a phone interview with Malay Mail.

Not long after, a meeting with Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, led to him telling her that maybe they should send an astronaut to space, because was is something that could unite and inspire all Malaysians.

And the rest is history, with Datuk Dr Sheikh Muszaphar venturing to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard the Soyuz TMA-11 spacecraft twelve years ago.

However, since then interest in space travel or space, in general, has been on the down and Mazlan feels that it is because “nobody is driving” space initiatives in our country anymore.

Because of that, the 67-year-old who is currently the International Science Council’s Asia and the Pacific regional office director in Kuala Lumpur, said that many Malaysians in the aerospace industry are joining the brain drain to foreign countries ― like she did too.

“I left for the United Nations (UN) because there was nothing left for me to contribute to the country at that time, there was no place for me,” said Mazlan.

And she is not the only one who feels that way too, as many Malaysians including her own son, opted for a career overseas, considering that there are no jobs here for them.

“My son majored in Aerospace Engineering but there were no jobs here for him, so he moved to the US to work in the aerospace industry there, and now he is a banker,” said Mazlan.

It’s wasted talent, for sure, as Mazlan added that even the established industries here, like Astronautic Technology Sdn Bhd (ATSB) which specialise in satellite engineering, is being stripped to the bare bones, as the overall interest in space has drastically declined.

She was understandably pleased to hear Angkasawan Programme finalist Captain Faiz Kamaludin was trying to reignite the interest in space by conducting tonnes of space-related workshops and activities around the country, leveraging on his role as the president of the Astronautical Association of Malaysia (Astro X).

“I’m glad to see that Faiz is using different methods to get people interested in space, it’s definitely a good idea,” said Mazlan.

Astro X will be organising the Venus Fun Run which will take place this Sunday (July 7) at Taman Wetlands in Putrajaya.

The event, which is primarily a five-kilometre run will also feature an array of astronautical themed activities to educate people and spread awareness about the wonders of space exploration.

Registration for the Venus Fun Run will be open until the event day itself and if you use the promo code “malaymail”, you stand a chance to get RM10 off the RM60 registration fees.

For more information, surf over to www.angkasawan.org.my.

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