Well, we’ve landed spacecraft on Mars, reached the outer parts of our solar system and just about captured a galaxy 13.26 billion light years away with the Hubble Space Telescope. Yet, there is something missing from these achievements, a common criticism of space exploration: we haven’t transported man to anywhere new.
Could it be a Thai start-up that creates a paradigm shift, space travel that is no longer for highly skilled astronauts from the US, China or Russia but in fact a plethora of ‘normal’ people? Varayuth “James” Yenbamroong and his team at muSpace Corp believe so.
“In the past, launching things into space was really expensive because the rockets that were used could be flown only once,” James told The Phuket News, “But now, space companies are experimenting with reusable rockets. This capability could save aerospace companies tens of millions of dollars in production costs, and thus lead to space travel being possible and cheaper in the future.
“Once reusable rockets are the norm, I’m sure space travel will not only be reserved to astronauts, but it can also be offered to other individuals. Once that happens, we’ll see the birth of an entirely new industry,” he explains.
James’ interest in space launched when he was just a boy growing up in Bangkok, sketching planes, robots and futuristic ideas of outer space across his bedroom walls. Luckily, he switched walls and Crayolas for pen and paper, and now, with a degree in Aerospace, Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering and a Master’s in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California under his belt, he’s prepared to make his futuristic ideas reality.
Although mu Space is a young venture, founded only two years ago this month, James has confidently set a goal of sending 100 people to the Moon in the next 10 years. This figure eclipses the 12 that have made the 384,400 kilometre trip so far. Exciting? Optimistic? Why not both? It’s important to be optimistic, especially in astronomy. It drives us to achieve what others thought previously impossible.
As recently as January 2017, scientists detected two black holes colliding 1.3 billion light years away, creating a gravitational energy more powerful than all the light radiated in the observable universe. Breakthroughs such as this do not start with conservative and restrained ideologies.
The mu Space brand of space tourism is set to commence in 2021 with shorter trips to the Karman line, the internationally accepted boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space. Flight test programmes are underway and positive progress points towards a launch in two years, but safety is naturally their top priority and humans will only be flown when mu Space is fully prepared.
“What makes mu Space unique is our target customers. We want to be the first to offer space tourism in the Asia-Pacific region,” says James, “We’ll send space tourists 100 kilometres above the Earth, let them experience zero gravity and they’ll return back to Earth after several minutes. To ensure their safety in space, we’ll provide them with advanced space suits similar to those worn by astronauts.”
Their “OO mission” space suit, currently in the design stages, is a sleek Iron Man-inspired ensemble that will protect against freezing cold temperatures, micrometeorites and radiation whilst offering maximum mobility to, eventually, manoeuvre a lunar rover, collect samples and walk on the Moon’s rocky surface.
Textile materials for use on the space suit were sent above the Karman line and into space as part of a six-kilogram payload which flew onboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket in July 2018. Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO and founder, established Blue Origin with the same bold vision as James: to seed an enduring human presence in space. The New Shepard rocket, which returned two months after launch, landed vertically, demonstrating the feasibility of reuse, as James advocates.
Also on board the mu Space payload was a bleeding preventive device, a carbon nanotube and vacuum-sealed food – their functionality tested after exposure to microgravity – and a jersey of the Thai national football team to symbolise the World Cup and the successful rescue of the 13-member football team from Tham Luang cave. The latter has a particular personal value; mu Space collaborated with Google and Weather Decision Technologies to provide the cave rescuers with weather forecast models.
Just last month, mu Space sent its second payload, this time with the intention of raising public awareness. The payload contained signature boards with a thousand names and signatures on, including Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s, collected at the Digital Thailand Big Bang and TechSauce Global Summit.
“This initiative is the first in Asia and this is something Thais should be proud of. It shows Thailand’s capability to participate in the space race and create history,” says James.
With mu Space breaking so many boundaries and achieving so many ‘firsts’, it’s worth asking, why has Thailand been so far behind the curve when it comes to space travel?
“It might be because space-related activities require intensive funding. Therefore, a space agency must execute their plan according to their funding and the technology they have available,” explains James.
“I’m optimistic that as more and more private space launch companies come to market, the cost of launching spacecraft will continue to decrease. This improvement should free up funding for space agencies to launch their own space missions in the future.”
Thailand’s leading aerospace company want to help those on the ground too with a satellite-based broadband service starting in Thailand and eventually covering most of the Asia-Pacific region. To do this, they must fire a geosynchronous satellite into Earth’s orbit. This means the satellite roughly follows the same latitude – with a small amount of wiggle room north to south – enabling good coverage over the Asia-Pacific region at almost all times, potentially spelling the end of the tangled webs of cables on Thai streets. mu Space’s very own satellite could be live in our skies as soon as 2021 and at a cost of US$150 million, a small price to pay for universal, reliable communication networks.
mu Space also plans to enable cities to improve connectivity and infrastructure in order to create a smarter and more sustainable future for Earth’s messy inhabitants through: 360° casual wearable camera; smart clothing that monitors changes in the body; aviation internet; maritime connectivity; and a huge, futuristic ‘everyOne Park’ that displays innovations in satellite and space technology.
If these goals feel alien to you, unfathomable, or you simply think “Why should I care if it doesn’t affect me?”, you are the exact person mu Space is targeting. James feels that the general public’s understanding is that space research is only profitable for academia and doesn’t have real life, real people applications. Yet, if it wasn’t for space technology, we wouldn’t have: memory foam; durable radial tyres (thanks to the Mars rover); prosthetic limbs (thanks to NASA’s robots using artificial muscle and actuation technology); and even baby food (astronauts needed nutrient rich food formulas too).
If mu Space can make space travel, or space tourism, a closer reality for the average citizen, the push for space funding and further real world applications become more attainable. mu Space’s journey to the next frontier is as much about the small inventions, innovations and applications of these successes en route as it is about humanity’s desire to live beyond. What may seem impossible today, such as travelling to that colliding black hole, may one day, with optimism and funding, become a reality.
At the very least, mu Space has the power to inspire Thailand into thinking bigger, beyond their small slice of paradise, up into the stars and, for all we know, beyond.
– Ross Armstrong