Local firm's foray into the final frontier

Local firm's foray into the final frontier

One Thursday morning, project manager Lim Chia Chiang, 34, waited at a jetty with four colleagues from Singapore engineering company Hope Technik.

They carried several changes of clothes and, among them, one fishing rod.

Beside them on the same jetty were several French engineers who boarded a different boat.

Both craft set off, but in different directions. It would be several minutes before the boat with the five from Singapore realised that they were travelling in the wrong direction.

Several frantic calls from their mobile phones and one U-turn later, their boat found its way to a barge, where the other boat had already docked.

Their destination was the South China Sea, but everyone on board knew that the crew's ultimate destination was further away - and much higher up.

It was Labour Day - May 1 this year - and they were taking Singapore's first small step into space.

When Mr Peter Ho set up Hope Technik in 2006 with three partners to design and build race cars, shooting for the stars was the last thing on his mind.

Their expertise in engineering led to projects in unmanned vehicles and drones. Some of their work resulted in the new Red Rhino - the fiery-looking attack vehicle used by the Singapore Civil Defence Force.

Over the years, the company's projects gained international attention and caught the eye of aviation giant, European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company, which changed its name to Airbus Group in January this year.

Having worked on the idea of a space plane for more than a decade, Airbus said it was building a space jet which could take off like an aeroplane and carry four passengers to an altitude of 100km.

It had said in 2007 that it had no plans to enter the space travel business itself, but was keen to sell the plane to companies which would sell adventurous space travellers a ticket to ride.

However, it first needed a prototype.

HOPE TECHNIK AWARDED FULL PROJECT

When Airbus' defence and space division sought out Hope Technik in 2012, it already had a miniature prototype for wind-tunnel tests.

The next step was to make and test an actual plane in real-world conditions.

Airbus reckoned that Hope Technik could not only design the SpacePlane Demonstrator, but also build it from scratch. It awarded the company the full project in 2012.

Mr Ho recalled: "We were working with one of the largest companies in the world. You had to pull yourself up to that level."

Having spent 12 years in the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) flying drones, Mr Lim joined Hope Technik in 2011 to continue working on unmanned vehicles. He did not expect to lead the Airbus project.

His team, which included two software engineers, two mechanical engineers and three electrical engineers, worked 70-hour weeks for 14 months. They slaved away on the blueprints, tested the fibreglass resin which the company made especially for the prototype, and adjusted the final design for real-world conditions.

One challenge, noted Mr Lim, was in the excruciating precision needed for the prototype.

"With cars, you do not have to be so precise. Just take a hammer and make it fit. However, when you are talking about a 0.01mm variance, how do you qualify it?"

Cultural differences also pushed the project off to a slow start.

"We had conference calls and their engineers would say, 'Okay, okay'. It took us several months to realise that when they said 'okay', it meant they understood what we were saying and not that everything was okay."

The objective for the quarter-scale prototype, called the SpacePlane Demonstrator, was to measure the descent of the craft and its aerodynamics.

Weighing 150kg, the prototype was 4.6m long, 2.5m tall and had a wingspan of 4m. It was meant to be lifted to an altitude of 3,048m and released.

Prior to the Labour Day launch, the builders took the prototype out to sea twice in April, to make sure it was airworthy and could be attached to the special harness made by Airbus (see other story).

Neither Airbus nor Hope Technik would discuss how much the project cost. Mr Christophe Chavagnac, SpacePlane programs manager and chief engineer at Airbus Defence and Space division, had only good things to say of the Singapore company and the work they put in.

He said: "We were looking for an SME which was in the business of aircraft assembly and Hope Technik managed to achieve what we needed within two years."

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