November 28, 2004

Grabbing a Piece of the Space Pie

EVEN as Malaysia braces for its first citizen to don a spacesuit, does the country really have what it takes to develop and sustain a genuine space industry? HIMANSHU BHATT looks into the dilemmas and ideas.

MALAYSIA raised eyebrows last year with a stunning statement that it planned to send its first cosmonaut to outer space with a Russian mission.

The announcement came after the agreement with Russia for the purchase of 18 Sukhoi Su30 fighter jets worth RM3.42 billion.

The selected candidate will need to undergo rigorous training of up to 12 months. It is understood that over 8,000 Malaysians have applied.

If all goes well, we shall be watching as one of our own floats in zero gravity by 2007.

Aside from the inevitable discussions in coffeeshops and living rooms among cynics and admirers alike, there has been - far less openly but very importantly - a buzz of excitement in scientific and industrial circles, for the announcement marked the country's desire to become a serious player in the extremely lucrative space sector.

There was talk of how the landmark decision could basically open up the floodgates for many other space-related ventures.

The prospects of spin-offs from research and development are enormous.

Unknown to many, Malaysia's foray into space began in the 60s, albeit in much less sensational context, when our first satellite receiving station was built by the Information Department.

In 1996, the Measat 1 and Measat 2 satellites were launched, followed by TiungSat 1 in 2000. The country now aims to launch Measat 3 and RazakSat next year.

But with three satellites already in outer space and more to come, we still have no national legal space regime and have not even ratified any of the UN space law treaties.

These concerns only pale in comparison to the other pressing questions that have got the authorities mulling to sort out - and quickly.

The issues are so brazen and critical that they are readily admitted to and discussed by the chief director of the National Space Agency.

"We need to develop our national space policy and laws, our legal and institutional infrastructure, towards ratification of international space treaties," said Datuk Dr Mazlan Othman recently.

"But there is also a need to enhance manpower and human resources.

Mazlan's frank views at a National Aerospace Conference in Universiti Sains Malaysia recently were met with equally candid assessments by industrialists and academics who had gathered there.

How does an infantile, embryonic industry on the ambitious throes of literally catapulting itself above the horizon ensure it sustains and grows with limited expertise and intellectual resources?

There was, among other things, talk of the "triple helix formula" - a concerted policy framework that brings together the government, industry and university.

"Genuine partnerships are very important," said Astronautic Technology Sdn Bhd (ATSB) general manager Norhizam Hamzah.

"The best way in which a budding industry like ours can blossom is by sharing and pitching in."

ATSB is the Malaysian company that prepared TiungSat 1 in collaboration with UK-based Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd.

And he is well aware of the enormous downstream activities that can be churned out from a space project.

The main source for research is the university. And it is crucial that this entity is not left out in the development of the industry.

"The universities are unique because their very role affords `luxury of failure'," Norhizam said. "They learn through encouraged failure - which industries simply cannot be afford to do."

And while industries can benefit from the experience of academics, the universities need to adopt a stronger business culture so that they deal with real-world problems instead of getting caught up in intellectual clouds.

Perhaps the best model for Malaysia to look to is the European Space Agency (ESA), founded in 1975.

Today, the agency employs about 35,000 people with an estimated 400,000 more involved in the supply chain, contributing to an annual turnover of E5.5 billion (RM22 billion).

Dr Chris Welch, lecturer in astronautics at Kingston University in the UK, speaks strongly of the strategies the ESA has cleverly used to pool resources from far-flung, disparate corners.

In 1989, Welch was one of the final 20 candidates for a flight to the Mir space station on the UK-USSR Juno/Soyuz TM 12 mission.

He has since been involved in space education and outreach activities, and now comments for the media on space issues.

The ESA, he explains, has come up with an ingenious seed money scheme for academics. It also gives technical guidance to help researchers verify if a study is applicable or relevant to space.

"Most importantly, the ESA has facilitated networking," he said.

And one programme to work wonders for the progress of European space industry is the ESA's Innovation Triangle Initiative (ITI), introduced in April.

"It finds potential partners by bringing together the inventor, the source of an innovation - probably a university not necessarily involved in space activities before - and the developer, a party with know-how to market the innovation while ensuring customer requirements are met."

The third factor brought in is the customer, the space sector company interested in using the new idea to improve an existing space product or create a new one.

The ESA is also known for its Ariadna project, a contract- awarding scheme for research. Ariadna has proposals for topics already defined by the ESA as well as generic areas where the academic community can propose study.

Currently, Ariadna research areas include theoretical physics, power systems, propulsion, trajectory design and space systems engineering.

University researchers in Malaysia would surely salivate to see such strategies run effectively here.

"Universities have many ideas, but most get stillborn," said System Consultancy Services Sdn Bhd executive chairman Khalilur Rahman Ebrahim.

"I have done a lot of backyard research that never went beyond than the lab.

"Any idea must be further developed into a prototype with the ultimate aim to commercialise it in the market. If we don't understand this, we fail."

A venture between SCS itself and USM for developing an unmanned aerial vehicle has been hailed as an example of such university- industry partnership coming to fruition.

In a recent MOU, the two sides agreed to collaborate on making a drone with a three-metre wingspan that can travel along a pre- programmed 200km path for some eight hours.

USM, through its School of Aerospace Engineering, would provide expertise in design while SCS undertakes the manufacturing and marketing.

The vehicle, able to carry cameras, transponders and communications devices, would help in efforts such as search and rescue, traffic surveillance and border control.

It is expected to be ready late next year. Malaysia has yet to build its own drone.

But developing local space commodities unavoidably means being compelled to rely on resources of other countries. And why not?

"We have to be frank. We are dependent on foreign expertise, especially at the beginning." Khalilur said. "It simply should not be a problem to depend on foreign technology."

"But now we do see our local capability expanding. It has been gradual, but maybe in the next five to 10 years, there will be more local content in technical and manufacturing capability.

"We must start at some point. We must have the confidence that we can do it and just plod along."