After six years of preparation and two previous aborted attempts, Marvyn Lim Seng should have reached the Armstrong line (the altitude at which saliva boils without a spacesuit, approximately 20km above sea level) on 31 May. But it was not to be. A sudden dip of the Quantum 1 space capsule during launch, meant that after 19 minutes of ascent, attaining 24,000 ft, Lim had little choice but to return to the ground due to depressurisation of the space capsule.
Picked up unhurt and undeterred by a rescue helicopter 25km north-west of the launch point in Alice Springs, Australia, the 58-year-old said: “We’re sorry that we didn’t manage to get the first Singaporean into space for our country. However, I am tremendously pleased with the team for exercising independent leadership. Ultimately, the attempt is more significant than the outcome. Our journey continues.”
A former defence engineer and scientist, Lim is the founder of tech startup In.Genius. His largely self-funded space mission is motivated by a desire to inspire others to pursue their dreams. In 2015, he placed a memo at Lee Kuan Yew’s wake, which read: “Thanks for bringing Singapore from a fishing village to a first world country; we shall attempt to teleport Singapore to space.”
This mission had a pilot—Yip Chuang Syn “Smash”, who has flown with the Singapore Armed Forces for two decades. Why did you, an engineer, ultimately decide to pilot the Quantum 1 capsule yourself?
We have pilots and we have engineers. A pilot will give an invaluable risk assessment of a flight: what is safe or not safe at each altitude based on wind level, etc. The engineers will focus on how to hack depressurisation, or how to increase the volume of oxygen and so forth. So these two groups will be in healthy discussion. I have to be the commander. Looking at the flight profile and the risks, I have to make decisions.
There is no such thing as a safe space flight. That’s why it is only correct and proper that I take leadership and fly this maiden flight and bear the risks. As a leader, you do not send your people to places you will not go yourself. That’s not my style. I made the decision on the night of 4 May — we had been in Australia since 8 April waiting for a good window — and when I made the decision, my heart felt at peace. On hindsight, I did the right thing because it was truly risky. I suffered the risk but mitigated it as a good engineer.
But were you scared? Did you fear?
I take pride in the fact that I was very composed. I had to be. I was documenting everything during the crisis management: what happened to the sensor, what was the reading, what was the altitude, what was the speed and all that — because those are very important data — and what were the mitigation actions I took to control them. When I landed, I saw from my external GoPro that there was a lone, leafless tree and the ground was horizontal. I was happy because I could have hit the mountains.
But two minutes later, the parachute dragged me 200 metres across the mountainous terrain in four bursts. That was scary because I was oblique [in the capsule]. I’d be lying if I said there was no fear. At that point, I felt that I was going to die.
But my left brain was taking down points to improve the capsule. I took 14 points down. Us engineers are die-hard, but my right brain was really scared. Throughout the flight, I had no time for fear. I had no time for emotion. I had to be very composed and very observant. I wanted to record all the points possible because it was a very valuable test. Therefore, I consider this a very successful flight. We took off; we activated the emergency abort system successfully; we landed successfully. This exemplifies what we say when the process is more important than the outcome.
And we did it with just nine people, which has to be a world record. Space agencies — and we’re not a space agency — will have a team of at least 50. We were nine!
After being picked up by the rescue helicopter, you said: “We’re sorry that we didn’t manage to get the first Singaporean into space for our country.” After all that, and you still said sorry. Why?
We have to be honest with ourselves, we did not make the mark. Therefore, I am apologetic about it. Can you imagine — if we didn’t hit the ground, we would have made it.
What was it like in the capsule during the ascent?
I was documenting into the GoPro throughout. Things like: “Pressure is dropping drastically. Ascent rate is very powerful and healthy at 7 m/sec.” From my mental calculation, I knew that at 19 mins we would hit 24,000 ft, and I knew that medically it would be the moment that I should knock out.
But I didn’t. I wasn’t feeling dizzy; I had no equalisation problems. Therefore, I pressed on. I turned up my oxygen to keep myself awake.
And in documenting, I said: “I’m now lifting the red guard to the abort button. And I’m putting my finger below it. The moment I feel anything, I will flip it.” Which is practical. Any aeromedical doctor will tell you that if you knock out, you knock out.
But as a pilot who wanted to do this for Singapore, I want to go to the last minute. And I knew that my spacesuit would give me 30 minutes more time. I was at 19 mins. I only needed 11 mins more to cross the Armstrong Line (20km above sea level) and I would have 19 minutes to come back down. I might have been able to make it if the base station didn’t terminate me, which they did. And they did the right thing. Knowledgeable people will know that I might not have made it back alive.
Your family was there on the ground with the team. They must have been unbelievably anxious.
I heard my wife fell to her knees. She was shocked, but she knew she couldn’t stop me and she understands why I did it. She said, “you are risking your life.” I said, “think about Smash’s family. I have to take this risk first.”
And your wife could hear everything over the comms?
No, the comms was down. But we also have what is called dead reckoning mode, which means we function as if we’re going for special ops, we go in silent — like when I was a guardsman. So everybody knows all the standard operating procedures. When I crossed 24,000ft, they rightfully terminated the flight from the ground. In that sense, everything worked. It was a great success. I’m alive.
I gather you and your team are already working on the next attempt.
We need to come up with a new capsule. As I said, we have 14 points to improve on the current design. Firstly, we have to make it a two-seater. Just as I once advised a Chief of Air Force of a certain country that it’s better to send a two-seater aircraft than a one-seater for a night mission in a war zone, here it is the same: we are going into the unknown.
After this flight, I do feel it’s better to have a partner. We therefore need a second space suit. And I want to build a satellite communication link, which is very important because, through this exercise, I realised that we need to talk in real time. The terrestrial one is just not good enough. I think we need at least $500,000 to $800,000 to pull this through.
You’ll go up again?
Any time! Our next flight is planned for 15 March 2020. I’ll be there. Provided we have funding. Just as how I had to take the risk to be the first to fly, I have also used my own money first, it’s a lot. You can estimate that it is a few million.
We need support. And I feel that I’ve earned the credibility to ask now. So I ask that if you believe in us, step forward. Help us continue this journey of sending a Singaporean into space. We are indeed very close.
To play a part in sending the first Singaporean to the edge of space, email [email protected]