Saturday, November 12, 2011

Dr Mazlan, The Woman Guiding UN's Outer Space Affairs

NEW YORK, Nov 9 (Bernama) -- Meet Datuk Dr Mazlan Othman, the former director-general of the Malaysian National Space Agency (Angkasa), now based in Vienna, Austria, where she heads the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA).

As the director of UNOOSA she has been guiding the world body's outer-space programme and seems to have made a mark with her extensive knowledge of astrophysics.

Mazlan who frequently visits the United Nations' headquarters in New York for official work, holds a position that brings her in contact with the world's leading astrophysicists.

"Yes, there is a high level of responsibility involved in the kind of work I do. But it is also an exciting field which is challenging as well as replete with opportunities," she tells Bernama.

Some Westerners may find it uncommon to see an Asian woman head an outer-space body that is essentially perceived as a male domain. However, a glance at the petite incumbent's impressive credentials can easily convince even the hardened sceptic that this is a woman who commands respect in her field.

LEADING THE SPACE CHALLENGE

Mazlan who was first appointed to UNOOSA in 1999, returned to Malaysia in 2002 to helm Angkasa where she was intrumental in launching the first Malaysian astronout into space Datuk Dr Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor in 2007.

She returned to her post as the director of the UNOOSA at the end of 2007 and ever since she has been dealing with issues like international cooperation in space, use of space-based remote sensing platforms for sustainable development, coordination of space law between nations and mitigating risks posed by near-earth asteroids.

Mazlan, a soft-spoken woman though, infuses the necessary leadership qualities in whatever she does, according to people who have had the opportunity to observe her at close range.

A TOUGH JOB

How does she find working for the UN with its challenges and demands that are incumbent on anyone holding a position of high visibility?

"The challenge of the UN is that it is a multilateral forum, addressing global issues. Consensus, therefore, needs to be built amongst many stakeholders with multifaceted backgrounds and expectations. There needs to be a balance between many parameters such as geography, developing and developed, and gender," she muses.

Prodded to explain her perception of life - not just vegetation but also living beings such as aliens - in outer space, Mazlan cautiously responds:

"Scientifically, we know that there are billions of galaxies containing trillions of stars, many of which will have planets.

"Hence, even if the probability of life is extremely small, given the larger number of stars, the probability is definitely non-zero. What we need to acknowledge is that 'life' can come in many forms and not just the form that we see here on earth."

Asked whether she was ever approached by scientists and other experts who seriously wanted to discuss with her life in outer space, she replies: "Yes, of course. There are experts who study astrobiology... in other words, life in outer space, and there are also experts who study planets, outside the solar system. All of the work has bearing on the issue."

SPACE, STILL NOT TAKEN SERIOUSLY

Speaking on specific challenges and opportunities of her present job, she reveals that space is still not taken into account in many aspects of the diplomatic negotiations and debates.

"My job is to bring the attention of the UN member states as well as the UN entities on the important role space can play in bringing benefits and the due consequences that may arise, if we do not pay attention to space issues," she says.

However, there are also opportunities. Because space is part of the discussions already taking place at the United Nations, the attention given to it can be further enhanced by expounding the idea that space is the common province of all mankind.

"And that space exploration is an important agenda of the United Nations and, therefore, international cooperation is vital," she says.

Mazlan has two grown-up children - her son, an aerospace engineer, is pursuing an MBA course in the United States while her 16 year-old daughter lives with her in Vienna.

By Manik Mehta

Taken from Bernama: http://www.bernama.com.my/bernama/v5/newsindex.php?id=625445

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