Singapore's station in Space
“Space, the final frontier.”
These were the words made famous by William Shatner aka Captain James Kirk in the original Star Trek television series.
Growing up watching these fantastical depictions of space travel, many of us may have wondered what it would be like to breach the atmosphere in a rocket, shrug off the tug of gravity and look down at Earth from a celestial vantage point.
One of a select few to have experienced this is US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Commander Jeffrey Williams.
Mr Williams, who played a significant role in the construction of the International Space Station (ISS), once held the record (since broken in April 2017 by Dr Peggy Whitson) for spending more time in space than any other US astronauts — an impressive 534 days!
While small countries like Singapore may not have their own rocket launchpads or space programmes, that doesn’t mean that they are left out of the great human adventure into space, Mr Williams told TechNews in an interview.
He held a meet-and-greet session on 2 August 2017 at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU).
In today’s globalised world, technology and talent transfer are not limited by geographical boundaries, meaning that even the smallest of nations can nurture big ambitions for space exploration, said Commander Williams.
Here are three takeaways from a chat with him:
1. Singapore’s role in space
Although the original space race had its roots in hostile competition, recent exploits into the void have been congenial and collaborative.
This is best represented by the ISS, which hosts astronauts from the US, Canada, Europe, Japan and Russia.
“Space programmes are sustained by political will, and a lot of the time, political will is solidified in international partnerships,” Mr Williams told TechNews.
“Hence, even smaller countries like Singapore have a tremendous opportunity to join partnerships to contribute, participate and reap the benefits of exploration.”
Indeed, a Singapore satellite jointly developed by NTU and Japan’s Kyushu Institute of Technology was launched from the ISS on 17 January 2017.
The Aoba Velox-III was designed to test the durability of commercial microprocessors in low Earth orbit and consists of a micro-propulsion system and a wireless communication system, weighing approximately two kilogrammes in total.
Although such projects may be small in scale at present, the knowledge gleaned from them could pave the way for bigger and better Singapore-made satellites in the future.
2. Fund the future
Space exploration is an expensive endeavour, requiring a significant amount of research and development.
This means that most private businesses, whether in Singapore or around the world, are unlikely to be able to bear the cost on their own.
“Space exploration takes a lot of resources, so usually governments have to pick up the tab to drive innovations for that purpose,” said Mr Williams.
However, he noted that by providing the seed funding for research and development in space technology, governments can create economic models that favour commercial entities and startups getting into the early space business.
Public-private partnerships could also help defray the risks of investing in space technology and provide a longer runway for such projects to take off.
Citing the example of the aviation industry, Mr Williams elaborated on how initial investments into promising technological capabilities could lead to massive payoffs in the future.
“Governments invested heavily in aviation engineering, and the technologies were eventually cost-effective enough to be picked up by the commercial world. Today, we know that aviation is a huge industry supported by a strong and sustainable economic model,” said Mr Williams.
“If history repeats itself — and it usually does — we might expect to see the same thing happen with space technology and space exploration.”
3. Launch the heartware
Simply browsing through NASA’s recruitment page gives you an idea of the qualifications needed to work in space exploration.
The minimal requirement is a bachelor’s degree, although most NASA employees usually have a higher education certificate to their names.
“Most of the non-military astronauts have PhDs or are medical doctors. Most of us who are from a military background have at least master’s degrees in various scientific disciplines. So, it takes high levels of education to be competitive,” said Mr Williams.
This is good news for Singapore, with its highly educated workforce and reputation throughout the world as a hub for quality higher education.
In addition to the hardware, Singapore can supply the human and intellectual capital — the heartware — required for space exploration.
Take Dr Goh Eng Lim, vice president of Hewlett Packard Enterprise, for example.
The Spaceborne computer he helped develop was launched from Cape Canaveral in August 2017, and is considered the most powerful supercomputer to have been delivered into space.
If there’s one discipline that could open the door to space travel, Mr Williams is placing his bet on engineering. Singaporeans keen to follow in Dr Goh’s footsteps might want to take Mr Williams’ advice to heart: “Engineers are very important. I think everything that we too often take for granted around us, such as our transportation systems and our communication systems, are a result of engineering.”
And it appears that engineering, and not space, is the actual final frontier.
As Mr Williams summed it up: “Not everyone will get the opportunity to be an astronaut, but engineering is still a very practical discipline where you take knowledge and combine it with raw materials to create something useful.”
(Editor: Do check out the Singapore Space and Technology Association website as a launchpad to find out more about Singapore’s space-related developments).