FIVE years ago, Datuk Dr Mazlan Othman left her job in Vienna as United Nations director of outer space affairs to set up the National Space Agency here. On Wednesday, she watched with pride as the country’s first angkasawan lifted off. MINDERJEET KAUR finds out if the space programme under the agency and the Science, Technology and Innovation Ministry is viable for the future.
A: We should take small steps. If you are talking about having our own technology to send someone to space and into orbit, that requires a lot of commitment such as financial input and human capital.
There are only three countries in the world - the United States, Russia and China - that have the capability to send humans into space. And the amount of money they have put in is a lot.
Each of these countries has thousands of people working on their space programme. The US spent about US$16 billion (RM56 billion) on its Nasa programme.
We cannot be comparing with them. So when we talk about building a rocket and sending a man into space it might eventually be a reality but not now. We haven't even built our own aeroplanes. Which is why we need to take small steps.
But it does not mean that just because we have not built rockets, we shouldn't send a man to space or launch a satellite. What we can do is to save money by using someone's rocket. There are different ways of doing things.
Q: What sort of steps should we take before building our own rockets and spacecraft?
A: We start small by having more engineers trained for rocket engineering, aeronautic engineering, space engineering and scientists to look at innovative fuels, among other things.
Q: Are we ready to send another astronaut to the International Space Station next year?
A: To be able to send somebody next year will be good. However, even if we do not send someone for the next few years, our experiments and research can still continue as we will be working with the US, European and Japanese Space Agency.
Q: How long will it take for our space programme to be successful?
A: It depends on how much money is put into it. If we spend money like China, then we can build rockets and go to space very fast. India will also be sending a man to space soon.
Q: How long will it take for Malaysia to develop the human capital?
A: When we talk about technology transfer, we should also talk about our readiness to receive the technology transfer.
Sometimes, we think we pay money to another company and we can do it. It doesn't mean we are ready. There are so many levels of readiness. It takes time.
Throwing in money to get something is one way. But by taking shortcuts, we lose out on certain levels because we do not go deep into it. The government should build a programme, then build the human capital around it.
Q: What should be done so that the younger generation would be able to build rockets and come up with world-class experiments?
A: We need a good education system. I have always advocated that it should start from the primary level. People should be able to see jobs in the space industry as a career. But if the country only needs five space engineers, then no one is going to see it as a career. It is up to the government.
Q: Other than going for road shows and giving talks, what other long-term plans are there for Dr Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor when he returns?
A: The programme should have a long-term impact. That is the development that we want to see. This is why when we embarked on the programme, we were very clear that we were going to do this together with other scientists worldwide. For instance, a lot of equipment that Dr Muszaphar will be using in space was obtained from the United States. We will also carry our experiments for motion sickness and lower back pain for the European Space Agency. For the Japanese Space Agency, our study revolves around the development of a radiation patch. We chose those partners because they have strong space programmes. The Japanese are going to launch their own module for scientific experiments. They will be looking for international partners. By doing something for the Japanese now, they will include Malaysians in the future to do more research.
Q: How can those in remote or rural areas relate to the space programme?
A: Even those who do not care about space still care about the country. By putting a man in space, it puts the country in the league of nations of the highest ranking. People may say that we should not be proud as we have not built a rocket. But in order to have a man in space, it means that we have certain capabilities. For instance, the Russians look at us as a viable partner. It means that we have reached a certain level. We have received international recognition.
Q: How did the Angkasawan project start? When did it start and who got the ball rolling?
A: It was in 2002 when the then Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad called me back from Vienna to set up the space agency and asked me what my plans were for Malaysia. At that time, I was curious to know whether we should have an astronaut programme. The reason was because whenever I spoke to the press, they would always ask me why we did not have an astronaut programme since we have a space agency. Most of them equate a space agency to Nasa. But I wasn't too keen on having an astronaut programme because it would cost money and it should not be a top priority as we had other programmes as well. I asked Tun why we needed to have a space programme and he told me that every now and then, a country needed to have a programme which would unite the people. And he thought the space programme would be able to do that. On top of that, it would inspire the young people and would drive the progress of science.
Q: What happened next?
A: We went to the next level on how we would fund the programme and if we could get the right candidate. We were not sure how many would apply. Tun had told me that he had thought of the programme in 1985 but he said we were not ready then but by 2002, we knew we were ready. We had a solid space programme already. We had launched two satellites, the Measat I and Measat II, and we had already launched our remote sensing satellite, Tiongsat, in 2000 and ended its life in 2004. We had aerospace engineering programmes. We had the Planetarium and Remote Sensing Centre receiving images. We had enough space-related activities as compared to 1985 when we had nothing. Tun also asked me how many would apply and I told him that maybe about a thousand people would apply. But then about 10,000 people applied. I was wrong, I didn't think it would inspire so many Malaysians.
Q: How did the offset agreement between Malaysia and Russia for the government's purchase of 18 Russian-produced Sukhoi-30MKM jetfighters come about?
A: There were a lot of things happening at the same time. I also got to know from the Defence Ministry that they were looking for an offset programme with Russia. We thought the programme which would cost US$20 million to send our man to space was very high. So we looked at ways on how we could cut cost. We were very careful not to spend too much because we were not sure of the public's support for the programme. I looked at the offset programme and I thought to myself, this is it. We could do the training programme without spending tax payers' money. I met Datuk Seri Najib Razak, who was also the Minister of Defence at the time, and asked him if he would support the Angkasawan programme as one of the offset programmes. He said yes almost immediately and said he would bring it up with the Russians. And that was how the programme started. And when Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi took over in 2004, he was very supportive of the programme. His support is obvious. He is always available when it comes to the Angkasawan programme or any announcement or when the candidates want to meet him or the Russians want to talk to him.
Q: Why was the National Space Agency set up?
A: It was initially set up to coordinate several ministries which were interested in space and communications. It was also set up to plan space regulations, space programmes and space policies.
Q: How many staff were employed at the agency?
A: There were 14 of us. In the first year, there was me, my secretary and driver. We were working with a skeleton staff. But I was fortunate that I had the support of the Planetarium staff. In the first year, I was struggling to come up with a programme to develop our own technology such as satellites, spacecraft and rockets. We needed human capital and facilities. In the last five years, we set up the National Space Centre in Banting to allow Malaysians to build their own satelites. We talked about Measat, Tiongsat and Razaks but these were built overseas. The government has to start a mechanism or create an environment where our engineers and scientists can build our own satellites.
Q: What was the screening process like?
A: With the 10,000 potential candidates, we got them to re-apply and when they did that, the number did not drop. So, the first thing we did was to eliminate those under the age of 21, maybe about 800 of them. We also wanted someone with a university degree, except if they were professional pilots. Because pilots are the best candidates for this. And I thought, if worst comes to worst, we will send a pilot. The number dropped drastically. This was the passive process.
The next step was to get them to run 3.5 km in 20 minutes. But only about 500 were brave enough to go through this. Out of that about half qualified. They also had to undergo a pilot's medical checkup to check their eyesight and hearing. At this point, only 100 qualified. The medical examination became harder from then on. They also had to undergo dental check-ups. Those who had too many fillings were disqualified because when there are too much fillings, it could jeopardise the training. Those who had major fractures were also dropped. From here on, we had other tests including oxygen testing and defying zero gravity.
Q: Are you happy with the candidate chosen to represent Malaysia?
A: We had 10,000 Malaysians who applied and went through nine screening tests.
Source: The New Straits Times Online