Malaysia’s first space traveler recalls return

.STAR CITY, Russia (AP) – Malaysia’s first space traveler said Tuesday his return from orbit “felt like an elephant pressing on my chest,” but that he and his two Russian crewmates did not black out or panic during a steeper-than-usual descent caused by a technical glitch.

“I was not really scared, it happened so fast,” Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor said of Sunday’s ride back to Earth when the three endured more than eight times the force of gravity. Soyuz crews typically must bear four times the force of gravity when the spacecraft returns.

A technical glitch sent the Soyuz with Sheikh Muszaphar and Russia’s Fyodor Yurchikhin and Oleg Kotov on a steep and off-course descent path, and their capsule landed short of the designated landing site near the town of Arkalyk in Kazakhstan.

“The overload was really powerful, but nobody fainted or lost eyesight,” Yurchikhin said. “I remember the overload going to 8.5 or 8.6 G.”

Medical tests showed the three were uninjured. In line with normal procedure, they were flown quickly after landing to the Star City cosmonaut preparation center outside Moscow for a post-flight rehabilitation course.

“It felt like an elephant pressing on my chest, but the Russians trained us very well” to handle a rough descent, Sheikh Muszaphar said.

The cause of the glitch wasn’t immediately clear, and space officials have started an investigation. The landing capsule will be transported to Moscow for examination.

Sheikh Muszaphar, who spent 11 days in space and conducted scientific experiments with cancer cells, proteins and microbes of tropical diseases, looked jubilant and said he was ready to go back into orbit.

“I was living the dream of all Malaysian people,” the 35-year-old doctor said. “I hope to go back and inspire a generation of Malaysian youth.”

Sheikh Muszaphar, who is Muslim, also said that during the flight he prayed five times a day and fasted, as his mission coincided with the last days of Ramadan, the holy month when Muslims refrain from eating and drinking from dawn until sundown.

He said he hoped his flight would send a message of peace to the Islamic world. “I hope other Muslims would be united, stay away from war and be peaceful,” he said.

Yurchikhin, who returned to Earth after six months at the international space station, said the most difficult part of his stint was fixing computers that crashed in June on the Russian side of the station, limiting its ability to maneuver and produce oxygen.

The Soyuz spacecraft, designed in the mid-1960s, has been a reliable but plodding workhorse for the Russian program that is still reeling from the impact of the post-Soviet economic meltdown.

Russia helped deliver U.S. astronauts and cargo to the space station following the 2003 accident involving the shuttle Columbia.

The remaining crew of the station – U.S. astronauts Peggy Whitson and Clayton Anderson, and Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko – are getting ready for the arrival of the Discovery space shuttle that blasted off Tuesday from Cape Canaveral with a crew of seven.

Whitson, the station’s first female commander, flew with Malenchenko and Sheikh Muszaphar on a Soyuz spacecraft that lifted off from the Russian-leased launch facility in Kazakhstan on Oct. 10.