Everyone knows Elon Musk.
He just sent two astronauts in a venture to the International Space Station — the first privately funded journey of its kind. This has reignited the space bug in many, sparking countless possibilities.
But surely not Singapore, right? I mean, we have launched numerous satellites, including one spookily named “SpooQy”. These were all placed onboard foreign spacecraft, primarily from Japan and India. There’s no chance of building a spaceport in Singapore without getting a few noise complaints from neighbours and charring half of Yishun.
But sending an actual, Singaporean? In a Singaporean made craft? Funded primarily by a Singaporean investor, who has dedicated it all to Lee Kuan Yew? The moon and the stars may be in our flag, but we surely don’t have the capacity to be among them. Right?
Well, one Singaporean dreamer tried.
The Man Behind The Mission
The most prominent private space enterprises have all stemmed from an existing business empire. Richard Branson, for example, had a record publishing company and an airline to fund his pioneering attempts to blast off into space. Elon Musk has his fleet of Tesla automobiles that raised his stock enough to fund some ventures into the great beyond. Point is, you need to be filthy billionaire rich to fund a half-competent space programme.
Our guy, Marvyn Lim Seng, was not that rich.
Marvyn had no multi-billion dollar company behind his back. That’s not saying he’s not qualified to run a space company. He was an extremely high-ranking official in the Ministry of Defence and was competent in aviation technology, at least, according to his CV.
He pioneered the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) department back in the late 1980’s, back when the whole drone craze was barely starting to take off in military circles. He was the first Director of Technology at the SAF’s Defence Technology Office in Paris. In the eyes of the military, Marvyn was as good as it gets when it came to technology, specifically in aviation.
Marvyn was still pretty well-off. Having an important role in Singapore’s defence force pays pretty well. But it’s obviously no match for Musk’s and Branson’s billions, and NASA’s national funding. Even his next job, working in R&D for Airbus, clearly wouldn’t be enough to finance his vision.
You see, Marvyn was crazy for outer space. In Airbus, he helped conceptualise Hypersonic Space Planes. He imagined Singapore as a pioneer in space-based business, titled “One Belt One Road”, which does sound ridiculously similar to China’s more sensible, land-based initiative. He even had plans for a space-based internet that was presented at a United Nations conference. After the army, this guy’s brain was no longer grounded but rather in the stars.
However, to kick everything off, and to prove his worthiness in beginning a private, space-based venture, he wanted to send a human up to space. A Singaporean. That was Marvyn’s goal: for Singapore to make its mark. His farewell note at Lee Kuan Yew’s wake talked extensively about taking a Singaporean to space. He was ready to fulfil his idea of a Singaporean dream.
Only problem: How?
Few Members, Few Materials, Few Money
Anybody from the age of three can say they’re going to space. Marvyn was obviously much older than that, and with much more qualifications than your average three-year old. A rocket, like the ones most space programs use, was clearly out of the question. Not enough money, not enough space, and not enough members in his team – he only had six on hand to construct his capsule.
However, there was something else that could get one into space. It’s not the most high-tech of solutions, but it’s the cheapest and quickest to assemble: a balloon.
Don’t laugh. As simple as it may be, this seemingly primitive method of aviation has been the vehicle of choice for several private aviators. There are those with global news coverage, a dedicated mission control, high-profile sponsors and plenty of fame like Felix Baumgartner’s famous trip up and leap back to earth, or a simple, home-grown attempt with two people on walkie-talkies, a lawn chair attached to some balloons, and a pellet gun like Larry Walters’ little trip.
The programme, titled GoSpace SG, was somewhere in the middle. Bootstrapped, self-funded (save for a few backers), with a few volunteers along for the ride sharing a single garage. Despite their limited resources, it was actually a benefit as the craft had to be as light as possible in order to take their craft beyond the Armstrong Line, at 20 kilometres.
At this point, I should bring up all the technicalities. 20 km is not even out of the stratosphere. There’s a whole debate on where space begins and what is the edge of space that is worth bringing up. Most weather balloons burst at around the 40 kilometres mark. Some don’t consider space as ‘space’ until the Karman line, all the way at 100 km. However, in terms of ballooning, 20 kilometres is a fair target to hit as that is the rough limit to human survivability without a pressure suit. Most notable space balloon flights, from Kittinger to Baumgartner to Eustace have all crossed this line. I’m no space guy, but that seemed like a fair target.
Work began in 2013 with the aim for the launch to coincide with SG50 in 2015 in true, nationalistic fashion. Right from the middle of the Singapore Sports Hub. This hit a snag for two reasons. First, it’s practically impossible to get any form of airspace clearance from the National Stadium, especially with Paya Lebar airbase nearby.
Second, and most crucially, their tests weren’t looking terribly promising. Their first test, held in India, saw them launch a balloon with literal test rats to see if their design worked. Unfortunately, all three guinea pigs – sorry, rats – died in the air as their pressurised cabin developed a leak. Mercifully, the second test returned the rats alive.
However, not only were there further delays, but some discontent was afoot in Marvyn’s camp. He supposedly was unable to obtain a ‘military-grade component’ for the balloon, which delayed flight plans even further. And then there was the pilot training programme.
There were 150 supposed candidates vying to be the dedicated member of the team to go up into space. Naturally, with such a long list of names, they had to do their best to whittle it all down to one name who would do a good job on the spaceflight. So they were able to narrow the entries to a 20+ person shortlist. These 20+ nominees would then go through some ‘training’ to find the dedicated person to go up into space.
Naturally, some suspicion was had when Marvyn’s own teenage daughter was shortlisted alongside all the other nominees. Then people started to pull out when they realized they had to pay for the training, consisting of paragliding and deep-sea diving lessons. This reduced the field down to twelve. The paragliding lesson was also dangerous, injuring one of the candidates as his parachute dragged him down a steep drop. Then there was even further suspicion when Marvyn elected to keep the identity of the pilot secret until the big day came, which is probably the last thing you want to keep secret if that person is going to be a household name with this launch.
That is, if the launch was ever going to happen.
So sure, the launch was never going to happen during National Day in the stadium, as dreamt up by Marvyn, but that wouldn’t stop them from at least testing the actual capsule itself to get ready for launch. With Singaporean airspace out of the question, Marvyn went to Alice Springs, Australia later that year to test the integrity and functionality of the capsule.
He didn’t need to go far to see what was wrong. On the road to the testing site, both the nose and the door broke off the capsule and tumbled off the truck onto the road below. For something supposed to keep a human safe at 20,000 metres, being unable to stay intact at sea level was already an indicator of disaster. One further miscalculation during the test dropped the capsule right onto the rocky outback straight from the bed of the truck.
Though the test worked in the end – ensuring the parachute could function properly – every single mishap along the way and subsequent damage to the craft drove Marvyn back to the drawing board. For the next three years, Marvyn was forced to re-examine everything, from airspace clearance, to finances , to even finding a suitable pilot for the second launch.
Right. The pilot. Almost forgot. Initially, Kevin Lee, an airline pilot, was picked to carry out the task in 2015. But after the delay of the launch to 2018, it seems he was apparently not picked up again by Marvyn. Instead, that job was given to Yip Chuang Syn, an F-15 pilot for the RSAF. While not one of the original candidates in the shortlist, Yip was taken onboard as an instructor, and found his way into Marvyn’s good books to land himself the pilot’s seat. Honestly, he was the most qualified for the job, but I still cannot take it seriously when all of GoSpace’s media releases only refer to him by his callsign, ‘Smash’.
Eventually, GoSpace started building more hype as 2018 rolled around. For this one, the company pulled a hard reset, bringing in another CNA documentary crew, encouraging professors and influential individuals to attend the historic launch. They even had a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo, with different tiers ranging from getting your name plastered on the capsule (where have I seen that before?) and plastering your company logo onto the capsule, to a laptop sticker and – this is verbatim – a “Boasting Rights T-Shirt”.
The hype surrounding this launch was now intense. Around fifty people made the trip to Alice Springs. Schoolchildren’s artworks adorned the capsule. The CEO of Mr. Bean even granted him financial support and showed up for the launch. National newspapers found something to add to their everyday news cycle with something fairly extraordinary. It seemed as if Singapore was about to get some “boasting rights”.
And then nothing.
The weather report on launch day was horrific. The winds around Alice Springs, especially high-altitude winds, had picked up earlier than usual in the season. If the winds were too ferocious, it would risk the balloon shearing and the capsule plummeting to Earth. There was no way they were risking it. Winds had picked up to 100 km/h at higher altitudes. For all the negative things I’ve said about Marvyn, I give him all the credit in the world for calling the flight off. They could have so easily been reckless and released the capsule into the horrific winds with the documentary crew and massive media attention present. This failure was, by no means, anybody’s fault.
Though Marvyn said that they’d be willing to try again, GoSpace seemed to have given up hope. They refunded all crowdfunding backers due to the failed launch. They made a massive press release announcing they were “out of cash”. After the documentary was released, there was no more media attention surrounding the programme.
The next year, out of the blue, they posted a video of Marvyn taking off in a test flight. Another Channel NewsAsia documentary crew tagged along for the ride, but with more high winds and the initial launch date missed, they packed up and headed home. Even Yip, their pilot, couldn’t wait in the desert forever and went back to Singapore. There was no media around Marvyn. He just waited for a day when the wind was right.
31st May 2019 was that day. With no Yip around, Marvyn took it upon himself to get into the suit, into the capsule, and into space itself. He was in and ready to go. All they needed was a decent launch.
However, deja vu struck. The crane failed to release the capsule properly, and gave it a hefty smack against the desert floor.
Like in his first rat test, the capsule was beginning to depressurize. Too much damage had been done. Marvyn was rising quickly and was soon about to reach the Armstrong Line, but he knew the risks. He aborted the flight at 8,000 metres – about as high as Mount Everest – and settled back down to Earth. He’d gone up, but not high enough.
I watched the epic trilogy of Marvyn Lim Seng documentaries: A Singaporean in Space, An Astronomical Journey and Edge of Space. I’ve read his interviews and newspaper articles dating from 2013. I’ve seen GoSpace SG’s and IN.Genius’ press releases. Marvyn Lim Seng, as much as others (including myself) doubted him, exudes this infectious aura of confidence. While it might sound arrogant to some, it is the language that inspires exploration and discovery.
And the best bit was, as questionable as his shortlisting of pilots was, as tacky as his door and nose literally peeling off his capsule seemed to be, and as small of a project as his, it almost worked. One thud on a rock was all that separated him from his final goal. His last launch was just last year. He’s surely preparing for another journey, to get past that final one percent, right?
“I don’t need to spend any more money to complete the last 1%,” he said earlier last year.
His GoSpace.sg website is essentially dead, with no posts following the final launch. Don’t get me wrong, Marvyn still seems to be space crazy. Just last November, he agreed to help set up a Business Innovation Centre in SUTD to support students and start-ups venturing into businesses in space.
Since it was his first public appearance since his final launch, reporters asked him about GoSpace SG. He still feels it was a big success, proving that Singaporeans can make a difference in space. In another site, he said “the process is more important than the outcome”.
He seemed happy, yet I can’t help but feel sad for him. He had a dream, and a big one too. Despite all the odds, he nearly made it. A six year effort, all to end up, as he put it, one percent away from making it. He had the ability to do it.
And yet he didn’t.
Sources: LinkedIn, GoSpace.sg, sutd.edu.sg, advisory.sg, Headquarter YouTube Channel, Business Times, Straits Times, Channel NewsAsia, Indiegogo, Business Insider