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OCT 23, 2013

Singapore’s Strategic Foray Into The Space Industry

By Steven Neo Say Bin

I have been a huge movie buff since I was seven years old, and I was excited to be able to attend the Singapore premiere of the new 3D science fiction film, “Gravity,” by Alfonso Cuarón which stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as surviving astronauts from a space shuttle that has been destroyed by renegade space debris. The film has been receiving rave reviews and sparking off a wave of public interest in the space industry. This interest coincides with the recent successes of the industry, such as the successful launches of the Epsilon rocket by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and Falcon 9 by Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (Space X), and the docking of the Orbital Sciences Cygnus spacecraft at the International Space Station (ISS). Intrigued, I decided to investigate this phenomenon and unravel the motivating factors behind the Singapore government’s decision to venture into the lucrative US$300 billion space industry.

Singapore’s foray into space industry

Singapore’s first foray into the space industry started in 1995 when Nanyang Technological University (NTU) started a satellite program under the School of Electrical and Electronics Engineering. NTU saw its first success in 1999 when the communication sub-system, Merlion Communications Package, designed by NTU was used in the launch of the British satellite, UoSAT-12, which was developed and designed by the Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL) . In 1997, Singapore’s defence research body, Defence Science Organisation (DSO) National Laboratories, began its research work on micro-satellites. These two research bodies will eventually collaborate and help to propel Singapore into prominence. On April 20, 2011, Singapore joined Indonesia and Malaysia to become one of the first Southeast Asian countries to successfully deploy its indigenous satellite, X-Sat, which weighed just 105kg and cost approximately SG$40 million to develop.

By 2011, the global space economy grew to US$290 billion with a compounded average growth rate (CAGR) of 8% since 2006. With a decline in domestic disc media and computer parts manufacturing, Singapore plans to leverage on the emerging space industry to revitalize the market by building upon its existing capabilities in electronics, precision engineering, and aerospace. Utilizing the nation’s favorable political, economic, social, and technological environment, the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB) managed to woo global players in satellite imagery, communication satellite operators, and communications equipment manufacturers to establish regional presences in the country. In August 2012, the Singapore government established the Office for Space Technology and Industry (OSTIn) to consolidate its efforts to develop the nation’s space industry.

To combat strong global competitors from nations such as China and India, OSTIn plans to concentrate on the niche market segment by initially focusing on developing satellites to support high speed Internet connections and high-resolution imagery. As part of its mandate, OSTIn also plans to forge international collaborations in space initiatives, to develop the human capital to support the industry, and to champion domestic players to setup and expand their operations by providing favorable political and economic incentives. Initial response to Singapore’s space endeavor has been encouraging. Singapore start-up, IN.Genius, has signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the Singapore Science Centre Board and the Singapore Space and Technology Association to develop a space science program with the eventual goal of sending a Singaporean astronaut into space by Singapore’s 50th National Day in 2015. The National University of Singapore (NUS) plans to better NTU’s 2011 feat by developing the first 50kg micro-satellite using low-cast, lightweight hyper-spectral imaging technology. In addition, ST Electronics, a leading Information Communications Technologies (ICT) system provider in the region, plans to design and develop the nation’s first commercial satellite that is scheduled to be launched in 2015.

Despite initial favorable signs, critics are skeptical of the long-term success of the space industry in Singapore due to the market dominance of Western firms and the high costs of market entry. Traditionally, space programs have been spearheaded and funded by government agencies. When the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced the retirement of its space shuttle program in 2011, some industry commentators proclaimed the end of the space age. However, crowd funding is slowly changing the market paradigm by “democratizing” the participation of space exploration.

Crowd Funding For Space Exploration

Kickstarter has become the leading platform for individuals and companies to gather investment funds for a wide variety of space projects, such as a full size rocket motor for the Hermes Spacecraft by STAR Systems (104% funded at US$20,843), and SkyCube, a nano-satellite, for individuals to take Earth images and tweet them from space (141% funded at US$116,890). The crowd funding trend for space projects reached a new height on June 30, 2013 when Planetary Resources Inc., an asteroid mining venture, successfully gathered US$1.5 million to fund ARKYD, the first publicly operated space telescope, which is scheduled to be launched in 2015. The ARKYD telescope is an orbiting space telescope that will be used by the company to identify potential targets for their mining projects. The telescope can also be publicly accessed by non-profit science centers and universities for educational and research purposes. The project features a range of benefits for funders, ranging from digital images of funders with the Earth as the background and tours of the Planetary facilities to participating in the rocket launch event and signing on the spacecraft before its launch.

As Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong said, “We predict too much for the next year and yet far too little for the next 10.” Although SkyCube and ARKYD represent great initial steps towards public funding for space projects, it is not going to replace billion-dollar international space programs that require the support and funding of government bodies. Failed crowd funding projects include Golden Spike Company’s human lunar missions, and HyperV Technologies Corp’s space railroad. Critics have also pointed out that crowd-funded space projects might send the wrong messages to private investors. The notion of crowd funds as “free money” is misguided as tremendous effort is involved in launching successful funding campaigns and maintaining the continued satisfaction levels of its huge community of funders. Successful crowd funding campaigns are able to articulate its business case effectively to its funders (how the money is used and what funders are going to get at different investment amounts), and withstand public scrutiny and criticism.

Personally, I am excited at the future prospects of the space industry, and I am hoping that my dream to travel to outer space might be realized in the distant future. Skeptics might question the feasibility of such a dream and the continued pursuit of space exploration when there are so many unsolved challenges on Earth. In one of my favorite anime, “Uchuu Kyodai” (Space Brothers), Soichi Noguchi eloquently states:

“When you see something from a new perspective, such as from above, you may discover a new solution.
We are not sending humans into space solely to travel to distant planets.
We are giving ourselves a new view of our problems on Earth, and the opportunity to find a new solution.
I believe that is the real reason that we venture into space.