“Were you afraid when you first launched into space? Over.”
“Yes I was a little afraid, but I could pay attention to everything carefully. We were very well trained, so I felt well prepared. Over.”
This was a correspondence between one of the 13 students with NASA astronaut Colonel Mark T Vanda Hei, who was based at the International Space Station, which took place at the National Planetarium two weeks ago.
This month marks the 10th anniversary a Malaysian was launched into space. A decade ago, “space” might have sounded alien to many, but today space technologies have been so democratised that I am certain each one of us uses space technologies even in our most mundane routine.
To share a personal experience, I was in the backseat of a prototype of Creta, a driverless car developed locally by Reka Inisiatif in collaboration with NanoMalaysia at the National Innovation and Creative Economy (NICE) Expo last Monday. It felt a bit strange that the driver’s seat was vacant as the vehicle moved slowly but surely to its destination.
The car did not have a human driver; instead it was controlled by a computer. Besides having sensors to manoeuvre the incoming traffic, it was also relying on a system we are all too familiar with – the global positioning system (GPS), a widely utilised space technology.
It is not surprising that many often question the need for a space program for the country, when there are more pressing issues “on Earth”. But do we realise that from the smartphones in our palms, to checking the weather forecasting, when you watched the SEA Games live last month and of course, navigate the roads using GPS – all these rely on space technologies.
The current local space sector focuses on space applications – remote sensing, communications and satellite navigation. MOSTI is the responsible ministry for space, its policies and legislation. It oversees several agencies that play different roles in the space program.
Agensi Angkasa Negara or ANGKASA, coordinates activities, develops strategic plans and facilitates the local space industry. One example is their role in Smart City initiatives enabled by the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS). GNSS is also useful in the military, especially in life-and-death situations like search and rescue (SAR) operations.
Agensi Remote Sensing Malaysia (ARSM) is responsible for earth observation, satellite data acquisition and its distribution; besides developing remote sensing capabilities to effectively manage agriculture, forest, natural resources, the environment, disaster, security and land. One initiative by ARSM is the Fish Site Identification System, where fishermen could locate fishing sites through remote sensing images.
Since the launch of the National Space Policy 2030 last February at the National Science Council chaired by the Prime Minister, we have been committed in implementing the plans we have drawn up. Strong governance in space is prerequisite to a strong ecosystem. We have since established a National Space Technical Committee that looks into the three application areas of space, plus space education and the industry. They would then report to the National Space Committee.
This policy is also the basis for the government to formulate the National Space Act to regulate space related activities. We need to be ready for future space activities such as satellite launches, other objects that would be launched into outer space and even the operation of an Earth station, in line with the emerging potentials of space technologies.
The next step would be to ratify international outer space treaties that have been signed by the Malaysian government. The Outer Space Treaty for instance, calls for the use of outer space for peaceful purposes.
About seventy countries, from both the developed and developing worlds, claim to have their own space programmes. In June this year Ghana launched its first space satellite, which has successfully orbited, to capture images of its coastlines for mapping and data collection. India, for 44 years, has been among those from the developing world to join the space race.
The controversy is that such nations should not have prioritised space programmes, when they are crippled with more dire issues on the ground, such as poverty, hunger and lack of basic infrastructure. However we should note that these problems could not simply be solved by higher fiscal allocation, for there are other non-monetary factors.
There is a lack of emphasis on the humanitarian benefits of space technologies. The United Nations reported that thanks to the early-warning weather systems provided by weather satellites in India, Cyclone Phailin that hit the east coast in 2013 resulted in only 21 casualties, compared to the 1999 cyclone of a similar size that took 10,000 lives.
Last Tuesday, MOSTI organised a National Transformation 2050 dialogue with stakeholders in the space industry. I thought that it was a fruitful one, with many enthusiastic participants hoping to address gaps in the local space ecosystem. We then realised the need to highlight tangible and intangible, both economical and societal, returns of employing space technologies to the public, such as the examples mentioned above.
MOSTI is also committed to spark the young ones’ interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) through space education. The National Planetarium is one such centre, which has just celebrated and concluded World Space Week.
We may not be launching an astronaut to space anytime soon, but our priorities are clear. Toward 2050, the well-being and happiness of the people would always come first. And we can expect to increasingly turn to space solutions for a higher quality of life.