26 vying to be the first S'porean to fly into space

SINGAPORE - A 15-year-old girl, a former soldier who has climbed Mount Everest and Singapore Airlines (SIA) pilots are among 26 Singaporeans vying to become the first citizen to pilot a craft into near space - more than 20km above sea level.

Seven of them were picked to face the nation for the first time on Thursday at the Global Space & Technology Convention held at Sheraton Towers.

Whittled down from an initial list of 126 are 22 men, 20 of whom are currently pilots for SIA. The women include two Nanyang Technological University (NTU) undergraduates and a graduate of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in the United States.

One of the 26 will be chosen by April next year to be launched into the atmosphere on National Day, Aug 9, 2015 - Singapore's 50th birthday - according to plans by the Science Centre Board, the Singapore Space and Technology Association, and IN.Genius, a local firm focusing on high-tech energy solutions.

The project is privately funded and has not received backing from the Government, though organisers still hope to secure this. They have so far declined to reveal funding details. The vessel will be a helium stratospheric balloon similar to one flown by Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner in his 2012 record free fall from 39km.

Space and rocket enthusiast and Tanjong Katong Girls' School student Cherie Lim, 15, said she would strive to be fearless if chosen, despite her youth. "Not everyone gets to do this. I'm looking at it as an adventure." The daughter of an aeronautical engineer, who said her parents are supportive, plans to get her pilot licence after her year-end examinations.

SIA pilot Kevin Lee, 35, said there was some "competitiveness" between the remaining hopefuls. He felt that his experience in the air and as a naval diver might give him an edge, especially with the gruelling rounds of selection tests still to come.

The 26 will be put through advanced confidence courses, deep diving, para-jumping and a helium balloon pilot course over the next year - with weaker candidates weeded out along the way.

But physical prowess is not the only requirement for a ticket to space. "I want to look for someone with heart, who wants to do this to make Singapore proud," said IN.Genius director Lim Seng, one of seven in the selection panel that also includes former chief defence scientist Lui Pao Chuen and former US Nasa engineer Timothy Kauffman.

Professor Lui said the choice would be a role model for Singaporeans. "He or she must demonstrate that they can dream about great things, and go through hardship to realise their dreams."

Mr Lim said the first plan is to launch the craft from a platform in the middle of Marina Bay. Plan B would be to take off from a ship in the South China Sea. The pilot would then spend "five to 10 hours" in flight in a pressurised capsule, he said, before landing off the southern coast of Sentosa in an electric-powered parafoil with a guidance system.

Consultant Lien Choong Luen, 36, who counts summiting Everest in 2010 as one of his finest individual triumphs, said: "This is one instance where I'm quite happy just to be in consideration. I'll be happiest if I see someone represent Singapore well."