Former Nasa Scientist Bidushi Bhattacharya is Taking Singapore's Space Industry to New Heights
Finding our place in the universe is a fascinating topic of discovery. The space race during the onset of the Cold War led to the emergence of key players in the sector, and sparked a worldwide interest in exploration beyond our home planet. When Apollo 11 first landed on the moon in 1969, an approximate 600 million people tuned in to witness the momentous milestone. Today, the industry has evolved to no longer just include global superpowers; private entities who have the technological know-how and support too have their sights set on commercialising space travel. Most recently, the space capsule that brought two astronauts to the International Space Station propelled by private space company, SpaceX, saw the highest online viewership on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) website to date. The democratisation of outer space has begun, and so has a new wave of talent looking to enter the sector.
In 2015, former NASA scientist Bidushi Bhattacharya established Bhattacharya Space Enterprises (BSE), and subsequently Astropreneurs Hub after noticing a distinct lack in the Singapore space sector's workforce pipeline. The former allows individuals from all walks of life who are curious about space exploration to engage in space-related education and training, while the latter is Asia's first space technology development and mentoring platform. "Singapore's location makes it a perfect stepping stone to the Asia Pacific market," shares Bhattacharya, "our workshop participants have gone on to establish start-ups that work on rockets, small satellites, ground-to-space communications and Internet of Things (IoT). A couple of start-ups are transitioning from seed to Series A funding, which is very exciting as well."
Today, BSE and Astropreneurs Hub have merged to form one space tech entity in Singapore known as Astrohub. BSE was first established first years ago, where it was coincidentally the 25th anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope—a project Bhattacharya worked on as a calibration engineer.
Those who are interested in furthering the space frontier can take up either of two workshops offered, both of which are now accessible online in light of the recent pandemic. The first is a keynote introduction to the commercial space sector, of which Bhattacharya has coined as "NewSpace". The second is an immersive experience, where participants engage in a Q&A session with a guest speaker who hails from a space company and referred to in a case study later. Participants would then have to analyse the assigned space company—from business model to technical readiness—and report their findings thereafter.
Apart from its online workshops, Astropreneurs Hub has worked with students to launch seven experiments to the ISS for astronauts to install and run. As one would imagine, launching cargo capsules to the ISS is a timely matter and meeting major deadlines is crucial. Hence, Bhattacharya carefully selects schools and students with the capacity to work effectively as a team to deliver the hardware on time. "Students have to come up with an idea and build it themselves with guidance from the Astropreneurs Hub and their onsite mentor," notes Bhattacharya, "they are not directed towards any particular project, but have to look up the NASA requirements and draft a convincing case for their research project to be sent into space."
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What was your involvement with the Hubble Space Telescope project in the lead up to its launch in 1990?
Bidhushi Bhattacharya (BB) I started working on the Hubble Space Telescope two years before its launch in 1991, mainly on an instrument known as the Faint Object Spectrograph. I was hired to work on the Hubble as a calibration engineer, with the primary responsibility of calibrating data from the telescope.
What, in your opinion, is lacking in the space ecosystem?
BB We have big dreams about the incredible growth the space ecosystem will undergo in the five to ten years. I've been in this sector for 30 years and see that we are moving away from a technical proof of concept industry to one that is focused on consumer goods and services. This can only happen if we get knowledgeable professionals from all sectors onboard—including business, marketing, legal, etc—and if there is adequate funding to keep innovation going.
Why did you set up Bhattacharya Space Enterprises and how has it grown since its inception in 2015?
BB I started talking to people in Singapore in 2013 to understand where the gaps might be in the space sector locally. The industry was very nascent at the time, but there was a lot of interest surrounding it. In 2015—coincidentally the 25th anniversary of the Hubble’s launch—I realised that we had a workforce issue. Hence, I set up this company to engage in training and education about the space sector for people from all disciplines. We have offered hands-on training with handheld satellites, and in astropreneurship to hundreds of individuals from around the world. In 2017, I also brought NASA Commander Astronaut Jeff Williams to Singapore.
Why is it important to reach out to students about space technology?
BB Space tech is already a part of their lives. To give an example, their mobile phones use satellite-based location services to run their favourite applications hundreds of times a day. Today, the space sector is at the same place as the computer industry was in the 1970s. We went from room-sized computers to ever household now having a desktop computer in less than ten years. The space sector will grow at a similar rapid pace to provide goods and services we can't even imagine yet.
What has been the biggest challenge that you've had to overcome as a pioneer figure of space tech entrepreneurship in Southeast Asia?
BB The biggest challenge is to get decision makers to understand and act upon the fact that the sector is growing. Also, to garner enough support from other sectors in order to create a true ecosystem for the industry to thrive.
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