iStock photo/imaginima

Having been a huge movie buff since I was seven years old, I was excited to attend the Singapore premiere of Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity. The film stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as surviving astronauts from a space shuttle that has been destroyed by debris. The film’s rave reviews have renewed public interest in the space industry.

This interest coincides with recent successes in space, such as the launches of the Epsilon rocket by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and the Falcon 9 by Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (Space X), as well as the docking of the Cygnus at the International Space Station (ISS).

Singapore, too, is hopping on board. The government has recently decided to venture back into the lucrative US$300 billion space industry.

Singapore in space

In 1995, 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 Merlion communication sub-system was used in the launch of the British satellite, UoSAT-12.

Much later, on April 20, 2011, Singapore deployed its own satellite, X-Sat, which weighed just 105kg but cost approximately SG$40 million to develop. This put Singapore in the ranks of the only two other Southeast Asian countries who had succeeded in such a feat: Indonesia and Malaysia.

By 2011, the global space economy had grown 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 repurposed its proficiency for electronics and precision engineering to better compete. The Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB) managed to woo global players in satellite imagery, communication satellite operators, and communication equipment.

In August 2012, the Singapore government established the Office for Space Technology and Industry (OSTIn). To combat strong global competitors from nations such as China and India, OSTIn concentrates on the niche market segment, developing satellites to support high speed internet connections and high-resolution imagery. Another important part of OSTIn’s mandate is international collaboration – the development of human capital for space exploration.

Initial response to Singapore’s space endeavor has been encouraging. Singapore start-up IN.Genius has signed a memorandum of understanding 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 the country’s 50th National Day in 2015. The National University of Singapore plans to develop the first 50kg micro-satellite using low-cast, lightweight hyper-spectral imaging technology. ST Electronics, a leading ICT provider in the region, plans to design the nation’s first commercial satellite to be launched in 2015.

Despite these initial favorable signs, however, market dominance of Western firms and the high costs of market entry make Singapore’s ambitions in space an uphill battle.

A new age of exploration with a new generation of backers

Support for new space exploration initiatives may come from unlikely places. When NASA announced the retirement of its space shuttle program in 2011, many proclaimed it to be the end of the space age. How could space exploration continue without government backing?

The answer? Crowdfunding.

People are slowly changing the market paradigm by “democratizing” the participation of space exploration.

Kickstarter has become the leading platform for individuals and companies to gather investment funds for a wide variety of projects, including extraterrestrial ones. Examples include a full-size rocket motor for the Hermes Spacecraft by STAR Systems (104% funded at US$20,843) and the nano-satellite SkyCube, which allows 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, from tours of the facilities to participating in the rocket launch event and signing the actual 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 ten.”

Although SkyCube and ARKYD represent great initial steps towards public funding for space projects, crowdfunding will inevitably fall short when it comes to filling the billion-dollar hole left by bailing 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 crowdfunded space projects might send the wrong message to private investors – that is, the notion of crowd funds as “free money.” In fact, successful crowdfunding campaigns are able to articulate a business case (how the money is used and what funders are going to get for different amounts), as well as withstand public scrutiny and criticism.

Skeptics might question the feasibility of civilians in space, and even the continued pursuit of space exploration when there are so many unsolved challenges on Earth, but the wave of public opinion says we’re not willing to give up on those dreams yet.

The character Soichi Noguchi, from the anime Uchuu Kyodai anime may have said it best: “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.”