The Straits Times says

Finding space to develop new niches

Singapore's modest jump into space, with the launch of six satellites recently, is a small nation's shot at a big industry. Orbital commerce (that encompasses mobile and broadband communications, and satellite-based monitoring systems) was valued at US$314 billion (S$440 billion) in 2013 by research organisation Space Foundation.

The number of satellites in use might well shoot upwards in coming years, expectations fuelled by the optimism from SpaceX's successful landing of unmanned rockets after space operations. If company founder Elon Musk succeeds in making space launches cost a hundredfold less than the conventional method, that would indeed be a game changer. Conceivably, this could spawn enough opportunities for even small players to take advantage of.

Critics might look askance at Singapore's fledgling effort to become a spacefaring nation. After all, when Japan put a satellite in space - the first Asian nation to do so - it was considered a late entrant, and that was in 1970. The private space launch and satellite-building industries are now highly competitive. Can the island-state catch up when it started the Office for Space Technology and Industry, under the Economic Development Board, only in 2013?

Despite the asymmetry of resources, there is scope for new aspirants to find niches in global satellite commerce. Even Ireland, with a population below five million, is making inroads by "bringing innovative technologies from non-space to space", as put by an Irish delegate to the European Space Agency. Examples include sensors that can operate in extremely low levels of light, surface treatment for space paraphernalia, and software development. Singapore is experimenting with ways to harness small, low-orbit satellites to relay data anywhere from space.

The challenges shouldn't be underestimated. From clearing swamps in Jurong to placing highly complex, ingenious devices in space is quite a leap for EDB. Unlike fixing economic issues on terra firma, there is no scope to rewire hardware that is beyond sight. One must simply get it right first time in the space industry. Strategic thinking and sound planning are essential but what will make the crucial difference is the pool of talent that Singapore can gather and manage to make headway in this arcane field. Mr Musk, for example, spurs his team to think unconventionally. At SpaceX, the CEO wears jeans, occupies the same freewheeling workspace as others and brainstorms issues over free frozen yoghurt in the canteen. It's more than just work style, of course. It's about a culture that is prepared to take risks and can deal with costly failure (SpaceX persevered despite a rocket exploding after lift-off this year). Singaporeans embarking on space ventures shouldn't think of such impulses and responses as out of this world.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 29, 2015, with the headline 'Finding space to develop new niches'. Print Edition | Subscribe