How Space Is Putting Singapore On The Map Of The Universe
Singapore Space and Technology Association (SSTA) founder Jonathan Hung’s interest in space was sparked at a young age by science fiction movies such as Star Wars. He went on to study at Florida’s Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. “I was very inspired by the people I met there, from veteran pilots to those on the front line of the American space programme. These were your professors in the classroom and instructors in the field,” he recalls. “In Singapore, you didn’t see this mould of people very often. They were innovators, entrepreneurs, and mavericks.”
Back in Singapore, Hung led the development of the space incubator unit at the Singapore Economic Development Board, and then took on management roles in defence technology companies. He now runs a management advisory company focused on advanced technology sectors, and is the founder and president of the non-profit SSTA, which nurtures Singapore’s very own space mavericks.
Singapore Space and Technology Association (SSTA) runs a suite of programmes to engage with youths. What is your pitch when you talk to them about the space industry?
Jonathan Hung (JH) To be honest, space sells itself. Everybody’s interested in space even if they’re not interested in science, they want to know what’s out there. What we try to communicate to young students is that the space industry is open to many different disciplines—not just science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), but even botany, law and policy. We fly down experts, including current and former Nasa engineers and scientists, to mentor and instruct our youth during our space camps. The decades of experience they download to our students is really inspiring.
The government has identified the space industry as a growth sector. Why is space important to Singapore?
JH As the economy changes, Singapore has to grow emerging industries, especially those with the potential to yield many advanced technological benefits. A space programme is a necessary means to an end sometimes—they don’t just generate astronauts and rockets, many end up diffusing a lot of their technology to terrestrial applications.
For example, solar panels first originated in a space programme. So space is a lever for other technologies, a locomotive for getting the best and brightest minds in STEM. We also demonstrate how close popular science fiction stories are to reality. For example, look at the armour worn by the Stormtroopers in Star Wars—in the 1970s, that perhaps was science fiction. But today, that type of composite armour is widely used in the military and commercial sectors. My job is to draw that connection to the relevance of these applications to today’s dynamic society, so that youths realise they can pursue serious career paths in these areas.
“Space is a lever for other technologies, a locomotive for getting the best and brightest minds in STEM”
How far away is Singapore from becoming a regional space hub?
JH There’s been a steady progression at a good pace. It was very research-driven in the 1990s, and in recent years, we’ve started to launch satellites. Most of our satellites look back at us on earth, and take high-resolution images in support of mapping. Some of these satellites serve commercial purposes, while some are used to support disaster relief. Singapore already hosts many researchers from the biomedical, robotics, aerospace and environment engineering sectors.
Attracting top talent and adopting a systems approach to putting things together are some of our key strengths. As a regional space hub, we can work collaboratively with everybody in Asia. Singapore can become a place for the neutral meeting of minds for regional research institutes, technical universities, and multilateral space programmes. We want to be a magnet that draws the best talent. SSTA’s role is to grow that network, and help build those early relationships that enable Singapore’s participation in international space projects. That allows us to grow our space heritage and experience, moving up the global value chain. I believe we can become a thought leadership centre in the next five years or so, and it may take 10 years to become a collaborative centre of excellence for the region.
Ideas such as space tourism and space colonies have attracted a lot of attention in recent years. How do you view these projects?
JH People like Richard Branson, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have been working in some of these areas, and there’s always some sense that it’s hype targeted at high net worth individuals. But there are practical benefits.
At SpaceX, for example, Musk is developing reusable rockets and revamping the entire space manufacturing supply chain, bringing the launch cost down significantly and providing more affordable access to space. Commercial point-to-point space transportation could revolutionalise the future mail and cargo business. It’s important for Singapore to get involved in such projects today, so that we can contribute talent and find our niche.
Do you think we need a mission like sending a Singaporean into space to better capture the imagination of potential space mavericks here?
JH Singapore may not have our own dedicated mission for space exploration, but I believe taking part in such multiagency international missions is important. To get to the far side of the moon or to Mars will take time and require multidisciplinary expertise. Getting involved today will allow us to understand the requirements of these massive endeavours, its multitude of technical and scientific challenges, and how we can contribute.
If Singapore can value-add in some niche area, such as systems engineering or robotics, it’ll be magnificent. And there will be a spillover effect, because these guys will naturally become ambassadors for STEM. That’s really the future. Technology is a gamechanger, and we want young Singaporeans to understand and appreciate that. It will take a while to build that culture, and it’s our job to help youths channel that maverick energy and find their path.