In 2019, Singaporean engineer and entrepreneur Lim Seng attempted to cross the Armstrong line, which is approximately 20 kilometers above sea level. The mission was aborted when the 500-kilogram capsule, being lifted by a stratospheric balloon, suffered depressurization at an altitude of nearly eight kilometers. In response, Lim Seng activated his pressurized body suit. The safety parachute was then activated to lower the capsule back to Earth. Why did Lim Seng attempt to do this, and why does he care to continue advocating sending the “first Singaporean to space?” To learn more, we spoke to Lim Seng.
What is your 1st Singaporean to Space project and why are you pursuing it?
At the wake of Lee Kuan Yew in 2015, I wrote him a farewell postcard thanking him for advancing Singapore from the third world to the first. I wrote that we would strive to send the first Singaporean across the Armstrong line. The 1st Singaporean to Space, or 1S2S, project is devoted to achieving this objective.
The 1S2S project was already well underway at that point. We had first announced the project in 2013 at the Global Space Technology Conference. To pay my respects to Lee Kuan Yew, I had rushed home from Hyderabad, where we had just successfully sent three lab rats up to 29 kilometers above sea level for 110 minutes. The experiment with the lab rats helped to validate datalink and life support system designs for the 1S2S project.
We mean for the 1S2S project to be a gift to give back to our small nation. I feel an obligation to give back to Singapore because I have been so privileged. I studied overseas, earning a bachelor’s degree and multiple master’s degrees. Without scholarships and the opportunities that they gave me, there’s no way I would have had as fulfilling a career as I have had. I have been fortunate enough to work with advanced drones, hypersonic spaceplane demonstrators, nuclear safety neutronic flux instrumentation, and space-based Internet.
Along with five other brave Singaporeans, we have volunteered our time, efforts, and personal savings to the 1S2S project. Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country! Many people perceived the project as a publicity stunt. I can only respond that if that were the case, it has certainly been a very expensive one! As I have clarified in the past, we are not concerned with what others think of us. We are instead pursuing the 1S2S project because we believe we have only one life to pursue meaningful endeavors.
The reason we are committed to the 1S2S project is that, because Singapore is a small nation, we must think and act big. We want to lead by example, taking risks and using our own money. As citizens of a small nation, we must dare to dream, to act, and to fail. We must have vision to see what is not yet here and courage to do what others cannot even imagine. I see 1S2S as fulfilling my promise to Lee Kuan Yew, and as a way to galvanize Singaporeans and instill in them a can-do attitude. We don’t want Singaporeans just to dare to dream but also to dare to do. This is extremely important for Singapore’s future; it will help our little red dot to survive better.
What have you done so far with regards to the project?
In 2014, we kicked off the design and development of three different space capsules. In 2015, we successfully launched two test flights with lab rats in India; we tested the pressurized space capsule and our life support system prototype. In 2016, we conducted two long-range telemetry flight tests in Australia, reaching an altitude of 31 kilometers and validating datalinks, position monitoring, and other subsystems. In 2017, we flight tested the pressurized suit as a safety redundancy; in case of depressurization, the space suit would keep the astronaut alive. In 2018, we sought and were granted manned test flight approval by Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority; we also conducted extensive weather predictions and detailed flight simulations. In 2019, we carried out a test flight in the United States with the space suit and conducted another depressurization test in Singapore. On 31 May 2019, we launched our maiden manned flight from Australia, validating all emergency backup modes. We are currently designing a two-seat space capsule and are seeking sponsorship to complete it.
What role do you see for countries like Singapore in the space economy?
Singapore can play a larger role in the space sector than simply being a location to host space conferences. We have local companies that are developing plasma thrustors, laser communication, and other technologies. Our ability to participate in the space sector is limited only by our imagination. Singapore prides itself on being a global air hub. Why not a be a space hub as well? If Luxemburg can aspire to mine asteroids and if Israel can launch satellites against the rotation of Earth, we believe Singapore can have similarly remarkable achievements. The key for Singapore is that we must be willing to take risks and sometimes fail in the process of shooting for the stars.