How do you talk to an astronaut? More specifically, how do you talk to the very first Angkasawan (Malaysian astronaut) sent to space who’s tall, super smart, very passionate in his beliefs and very, very handsome without sounding like an awestruck schoolgirl?
This was my very thought as soon as I found out that I was set to fetch, meet and spend time with the supposedly dashing 38 year old Dato Sheikh Muszaphar, who’s not only an Angkasawan but an orthopedic surgeon and part-time model as well. (Yes, he’s that amazing.) The last thing I wanted was to talk to someone who knew a lot about Physics, Medicine and Aerospace Engineering. Heck, I could barely remember the technicalities surrounding g-forces, gravity, micro-neurons and surface tension! How in the world could I even carry a logical conversation with a real life astronaut? Do I just ask him about stars, how he drank liquid in space, if it’s true that you can see the Great Wall of China from space or (worse comes to worst) if he saw the Philippines from space? Pretty lame questions, yes, but I was already a bit frantic.
So I started to worry. What if hanging out with him was going to be a struggle? I couldn’t risk making a fool of myself! So I resolved that I should just probably stick to taking photos, perhaps offer to teach him a few Filipino words and basically “observe” from a distance. After all, some of my Malaysian gal pals insist that Dato Sheikh Muszaphar is very charming and that I should “enjoy the view (meaning him)…enjoy the entire experience of being with the first Malaysian astronaut.” Well, that was pretty easy to do. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder — surely there was something more to this Angkasawan than just cuteness overload and a thousand watt smile, right?
He arrived on a Monday, a day after I screamed my lungs out cheering for the Philippine Football Team Azkals. Check out the photos I took from the very front row here and here. So on a Sunday, I was with our good looking Azkals, the next day I was to spend time with Malaysia’s heartthrob. Must be my destiny to be around handsome fellas!
Fetching the charming ASEAN astronaut was a bit of a thrill in itself. I was with the Malaysian Ambassador to the Philippines Dato Seri Dr. Ibrahim Saad and his lovely wife Datin Seri Dato Zainab Kader (who, by the way, are responsible for bringing this modern day hero to the Philippines for the very first time!) plus Malaysian Embassy First Secretary Sukairi Samsudin. I was the only Filipino in a pack of friendly Malaysians and I was pretty comfortable with the idea to remain anonymous.
I was handed a “Diplomatic Pass” at the airport arrival area. We went straight to the immigration section, past the baggage carousels. I was busy adjusting the settings of the DSLR camera when I noticed a bit of a commotion. A lot of people were already staring at this tall man smartly dressed in a blue suit. A few minutes later, he went past the immigration officer.
And there he was — Dato Sheikh Muszaphar. A man who made history, a man who was (and still is being) idolized by millions. A real life astronaut with a disarming smile. Suddenly, I so badly wanted to remember exactly why Pluto was no longer considered a planet. You know, to at least be ready to say something that made sense, just in case. Alas, my brain did not work. Great.
When it was my turn to be introduced, I think I merely smiled and uttered a word or two. I was buzzin’. He obviously had me at hello.
We then went to his hotel, where he was briefed about his jampacked schedule. It was also where we had a small photoshoot of sorts. As you can see, he has a book out entitled “Journey To Space.” Do you want a copy? I’ll let you know how to get one.
Then, we went to a nearby restaurant to have late lunch. I must tell you, it was difficult to remain prim and proper in front of him. I just kept on pestering Mr. Sukairi to mask my state of mesmerization. Good thing Mr. Sukairi didn’t mind, although I had a funny feeling he knew quite well what I was up to.
Over french bread, mussels and calamari, I listened to him as he shared all about his time in the International Space Station, about how both proud and humbled he was to represent the ASEAN aboard Soyuz TMA-11 and about how he loves giving inspirational talks all over Malaysia and other areas in Southeast Asia. I slowly saw the other side of the famous Malaysian astronaut. There was a genuine warmth about him and his honesty, his straight, matter-of-factly way of sharing his thoughts was a welcome breather, like a whiff of fresh air.
“I’ve dreamt of becoming an astronaut since I was 10 years old,” he said, adding that he knew from the get-go that his dream will come true someday. He was so confident that when the Malaysian government opened its Angkasawan Program, which was created with the initial purpose of being able to send the very first Malaysian to space, he knew he would be chosen. Never mind if there were 11,425 applicants (!!!) According to Dato Sheikh, he knew in his heart that it was his destiny to be an astronaut and that it was his destiny to be sent to space.
And sent he was on October 10, 2007. Interestingly, he was sent to space on 10-10. He got married to Dr. Halina Mohd Yunos on October 10, 2010 (10-10-10). Obviously the number 10 plays a huge role in his life. Shall we call it providential or coincidental?
Oops, did I just break a few hearts there? Yes, ladies, unfortunately Dato Sheikh is already taken. He and his wife are even set to welcome their firstborn soon! Still, I think it’s perfectly all right to admire a man so gorgeous — I daresay one of the most beautiful Asian men in history! — and it’s even more perfectly all right to admire a man who knows what he wants and who’s passionate with his advocacies, yes?
Dato Sheikh was sent to space for a total of 12 days along with a cosmonaut and an astronaut. During his stay, he performed experiments. He said that the team brought cancer cells as well as bacteria to space. They did this because the cells are 20 times much bigger in space because of the lack of gravity. Because of the bigger size of the cells, they could study the cells much better.
He also added that he dreamt big, worked very hard and kept himself physically, emotionally and mentally fit. Because you see, you can’t be sent to space if you’re not “perfect.” Dato Sheikh said that you must have good eyesight, no surgical scars at all, no teeth fillings etc. Apparently, you can’t be sent to space even if you have the slightest trace of sore throat!
Before the conversation got any deeper, we had to cut the chit-chat short. He had, after all, one very hectic schedule ahead of him. We were to re-converge about an hour later. We left the Malaysian astronaut and gave him time to rest.
At that point, I began seeing Dato Sheikh Muszaphar in a different light. Perhaps I was right. There really was something more to him that meets the eye.
Fast forward an hour and a half later, I accompanied Datin Seri back to the hotel. We found a small crowd gathered around the Angkasawan. It was picture taking time with kids, their parents, some embassy staff members, organizers and even hotel workers. There were also a few strangers who simply had to have their photos taken with a real life astronaut! After mingling with his new fans, it was time to have dinner…but not before stopping by Rumah Malaysia so he can sign the official guestbook!
We all went to a restaurant near the Mall of Asia. The night went well — food was good, company was great and the conversations were even better.
The next day, we had an early start. Mr. Sukairi and I fetched him at around 9 a.m. We were bound for the Discovery Center at Mall of Asia, where about 150 kids were anxiously waiting for his arrival. It was a good 15 minute-ride from his hotel to the center. Those 15 minutes also meant that I was to sit beside him in a luxury car! Hmm…should I now throw one of my lame questions? On second thought…
I instead told him that I posted one of the photos I took of him the day before on Twitter and that it has so far garnered thousands of views and feedback. All favorable responses, of course. Some were from gushing females, some from geeky males and, quite interestingly, a lot from Malaysians and Indonesians who have now become my new Twitter followers.
So I mustered up all my intestinal fortitude and asked him: “was he already used to all the attention accorded to him by his many adoring fans?”
“If it makes them happy, then I don’t have any complaints,” he said, adding: “I like making people happy. I’m happy when they’re happy.”
I thought it was a nice answer.
We arrived a little early than expected at the Discovery Center. So we decided to have coffee and donuts first. Luckily, Dato Sheikh was also in the mood to pose for the camera!
A few minutes later, it was showtime. It was as if an imaginary button was switched on and in just a snap, the first ever Malaysian astronaut, the ASEAN Angkasawan was in his element. He faced the 150 kids, shared that he was a self-confessed huge fan of Star Wars and Star Trek and explained that his sojourn to space was the result of an offset. In exchange for the cost of training two and sending one Malaysian into space, the Malaysian government bought military aircraft from Russia worth $25 Million. He also answered the many interesting questions from his young audience — did astronauts use ballpens in space? (nope, only pencils!), what biological changes did his body undergo while in space? (he grew about 10 centimeters taller!), how did you take a bath in space? (Angkasawan only used wet wipes! Besides, no bacteria in space so no germs) and the inevitable — how did Angkasawan go to the toilet? (there were suctions placed on the front and on the back…”We had to be very careful or else we’ll see some floating things,” he said with a grin, much to the amusement of the kids).
You could really sense that Dato Sheikh was happy in answering the questions. “It shows that the kids are really thinking,” he told me.
Of course, someone just had to ask the inevitable — is Angkasawan married?
Moments later, we found ourselves in a room with members of the Philippine print media. Then I saw a familiar face – Cata, a reporter of GMA 7 Network. I was so happy because I was the one who invited GMA 7, through THE Miss Jessica Soho, to come and cover the event. It was so nice to know that they sent a team to interview Angkasawan. Good, good, good! Thank you GMA 7!
And so the mini-presscon began. The Malaysian Ambassador also sat beside Dato Sheikh.
Cata’s interview with Angkasawan was aired on primetime news TV via “24 Oras”:
Then, after a quick tour around the Discovery Center, we were off to have lunch. I also received some good news from my friends at ABS CBN News Channel (ANC) – they wanted Dato Sheikh Muszaphar and Dato Seri Dr. Ibrahim Saad in the ABS CBN studios that afternoon for an interview! Woohoo! Thank you so much Faiqah and of course, to one of my idols – Tony Velasquez! The two Malaysians were featured in ANC’s “Future Perfect.”
Unfortunately, I had a flight to catch that day so I was no longer able to accompany them. It would’ve been great to visit the ABS CBN studios again — did I ever mention that I used to work there?
Anyway, even thought I missed out on that, I did the next best thing. I was able to request Dato Sheikh for a video message for all my Mindanaoan.com readers. Check this out:
As my time with the charming astronaut was coming to a close, he reminded me about his desire to come back to the Philippines before the end of the year. (are those excited shrieks from fans I hear?) He wanted to help spread awareness about the importance of environment protection. He was particularly interested to help remind people of the importance of coral reefs, marine biodiversity, ecological balance and other marine life. I told him that it was a fabulous idea. So keep your fingers crossed — Dato Sheikh might just be back before you know it! And yes, hopefully he’ll also do a book tour when he comes back.
Let me know THROUGH THIS CONTACT FORM if you want to pre-order, okay? Or if you want your school, organization or local government unit to invite him, contact me here as well! Let’s all keep the charming astronaut busy while he’s in the Philippines 😉 Besides, I’m sure Dato Sheikh would be so happy to meet you all!
Ahh…the time I spent with Dato Sheikh Muszaphar may have been brief but it was truly memorable. Yes, he’s easy on the eyes and a certified looker (it’s a given, what can I say?) but underneath all that, it’s a relief to know that there’s a man who knows exactly what he wants, who knows how to get what he wants and who also knows how to empower others in order for them to get what they want.
Just like what he said in the video, you need not be astronauts. However, you can explore science, engineering, aerospace, medicine. Dream big. Believe. Work hard.
Dato Sheikh Muszaphar truly has an inspirational story to tell and his unique feat is something that we should all remember. He’s practically a walking billboard of the really simple law of attraction – do good and good will come back to you. Who knows, you might even achieve something even greater someday!
Dreams are possible. That is true and that is real. Just dream big. Believe. Work hard.
Rinse and repeat.