Cultural sensitivity needed - even in space

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 September, 2007, 12:00am

What's in a name? A lot, it would seem, if you are Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, a medical doctor who is expected to be the first Malaysian to blast off into space for a nine-day stay at the International Space Station. The Russians, who helped arrange the space trip, have no problem calling him a cosmonaut. But the Americans, whether because of bureaucratic rules, cultural insensitivity or both, insist on labelling him a 'space participant', a euphemism for space tourists. Many Malaysians are understandably outraged by Nasa's designation for one of their national heroes.

For many emerging nations, space exploration is as much about face and prestige, as it is about science, if not more so. This is why countries such as India, China and Malaysia are willing to invest billions of dollars in space technology that is, in a way, analogous to reinventing the wheel. Calling one of their own a mere space participant can easily be perceived as a national insult.

Dr Muszaphar, in any case, is not a space tourist. He is sponsored by the Malaysian government's space programme, which would make him a national representative, unlike space tourists who pay for a joy ride as private citizens. According to the Malaysian programme, he will also perform biological experiments on cells, microbes and protein crystallisation. Malaysian food will be studied with a view to increasing its variety and quality for future spacemen from the Muslim country. These would sound like worthy scientific projects to most people, though, understandably, state-of-the-art Nasa researchers may think differently.

The Russians understand a thing or two about cultural sensitivity and have taken a pragmatic stand, regardless of the scientific merits of the proposed experiments.

There is enough conflict between the US and the Islamic world that we can really do without one more, especially over so trifling an issue as what to call a spaceman. Whatever rule books those Nasa bureaucrats are following, they will perform a far greater service to their nation by bending the rules a little. A little sensitivity can go a long way.