Let’s look to the stars, launch a rocket from Malaysia

Beep, beep, beep! The blaring alarm brought my blissful sleep to an unceremonious halt. Squinting, I reached out for my smartphone to put a stop to the unpleasant sound. It was 2.20 am on Sunday May 30, 2020.

After a fuzzy first minute, I regained my senses and remembered why I had set the alarm for such an unseemly hour. I had wanted to witness spaceflight history in the making.

For the first time ever, a private company was launching people into space. It would also be the first time astronauts were launched from American soil in nine years. And they would be aboard SpaceX’s spanking new Crew Dragon capsule that would be delivering people to space and docking with the International Space Station for the first time.

I counted down with the timer, nervously hoping the launch would go smoothly and without much drama. I could only imagine how the two brave astronauts and all those who worked to make the mission a success for years on end would have been feeling.

At the end of the heart-pounding countdown, the nine powerful Merlin engines of the gargantuan Falcon 9 rocket, which stands at 21-storeys high, roared to life and blasted itself along with its crew into space. The launch couldn’t have gone more flawlessly. The whole thing was over in a few minutes as the astronauts sped off to rendezvous with the Space Station while the first-stage rocket booster landed safely on a barge in the Atlantic – a sight to behold and a feat of engineering no company or government has managed bar SpaceX.

But as historic as this launch was, it doesn’t hold a candle to the landmark event in spaceflight history – the Apollo moon landing in 1969. The 51st anniversary of that historic event – on July 20 – is fast approaching. It’s arguably the greatest and most awe-inspiring technological accomplishment of the past century – and it was pulled off with less computing power than you hold in the palm of your hands.

It galvanised an entire generation and spurred interest in space and engineering like no other event in recent history. But since then, despite the explosion in computing power and engineering prowess, we have not been able to match the storied achievements of our forebears.

The closest we Malaysians have felt to this was when Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor shot to space aboard the Russian workhorse rocket Soyuz in 2007. I remember the excited buzz that permeated the air during the Angkasawan Programme that put a Malaysian in space for the first time. I was only a teenager then and remember following the developments closely, just as many of my friends did.

It gave Malaysians something to aspire to. It obviously wasn’t on the scale of the Apollo programme but it was a start for a budding nation like ours. That’s why I was left dismayed when nothing happened after that and the government did not capitalise on the interest generated.

Recently, I read in a Malaysian daily that a follow-up mission was being planned by The Malaysian Space Agency (MySA) for sometime before 2030.

This is too far off in the future. Thinking of space exploration as a luxury that we can do without is a grave mistake as it has blessed us with innumerable technologies that we can’t imagine living without today.

This includes real-time precision GPS which we use when we need to look for our lost iPhone or the route to a friend’s house with Waze; weather and disaster predictions which mean the difference between life and death in many parts of the world; and even life-saving surgical robots which owe their roots to the robots that were developed for the International Space Station.

If this sounds impressive, keep in mind that I’m not even scratching the surface. Since 1976, NASA has been compiling an annual list of 50 or so commercial technologies that were the brainchild of NASA missions. That means the list now has more than 2,200 technologies that touch and empower billions of people daily. And this doesn’t even include the contribution of the formidable European, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, and Indian space agencies.

In addition to these obvious technological benefits, advancements in space, much like sports, have an uncanny ability to unite the nation and be a focal point for people to rally around. It captures and holds the imagination of the public, fuels patriotism, and gives them something to be proud of.

It’s also a fantastic way to foster a love for science, technology, engineering, and maths in students. Having a robust space industry will act as a catalyst and allow students an avenue to develop and hone their scientific acumen. It’ll certainly be better than just talking about the importance of science and maths.

There are many ways we can invigorate the Malaysian space industry. Sending astronauts to space is the flashiest but also the costliest method. One of the more cost-effective ways to get started is by encouraging the development of CubeSats.

CubeSats are miniature satellites that can be as small as 10cm x 10cm x 10cm and are often assembled using commercially-available, off-the-shelf parts; which means they can be made relatively cheaply and easily. In 2018, UiTM launched Malaysia’s first CubeSat from the International Space Station.

While a good first step, we need to encourage other universities to follow suit. CubeSats’ versatility and affordability mean that the barrier to entry is low, allowing many people to develop these miniature satellites to study a host of things that can only be studied in space.

Concurrently, the Malaysian Space Agency (MySA) could start a comprehensive technology transfer programme with NASA, the world’s preeminent space organisation. This is the route that the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) took in the 1970s in order to develop its own space capabilities.

They were trained by experienced NASA personnel on how to conduct missions and the technology that needs to be developed to enable this. This gave them the initial boost necessary to make them one of the most innovative space organisations in the world. Their capability was put to the test and proven when they were able to successfully build and launch a Mars orbiter for less than it cost to make the Hollywood blockbuster, Gravity.

For these reasons and many more, space science needs to take centre stage when it comes to scientific research in Malaysia. Personally, I can’t imagine a sight more glorious than having a rocket launch from home soil.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.