Spaced out

Spaced out

SINGAPORE - His is a gobsmacking plan: To send a Singaporean into the far reaches of the stratosphere by end-2014.

Making our jaws drop further, he says plans are actually progressing ahead of time.

The first manned flight should happen in the fourth quarter of next year.

Mr Lim Seng (left) is nothing if not unorthodox.

Dressed in a printed burgundy shirt, trousers and twotoned oxford shoes for our interview and photoshoot, Mr Lim, 54, does not bat an eyelid at my or the editor's scepticism. We are catching up with him after his plans, which made headlines in all the major media, were first announced in February.

The idea is to send a man beyond Armstrong's Line, or more than 20km up into the stratosphere.

Armstrong's Line is an altitude beyond which humans absolutely cannot survive in an unpressurised environment.

Of course, it is not quite a spacewalk like the film Gravity. After all, outer space is usually defined by the Karman Line, 100km above sea level.

Instead, the first Singaporean in near-space will head up there in a balloon-like structure.

We asked Mr Lim why bother to since technically, any Singaporean who has flown the now-defunct Concorde or any fighter pilot has done so at this altitude?

His reply?

That this was an important step to establish the viability of the spacecraft he is engineering, which will be part of his space tourism plans.

The best way to explain Mr Lim is to think of him as Singapore's version of English business magnate Richard Branson.

Like Branson, he's taken on the dreams of space for the eventual payoff of space tourism in late 2016 or 2017.

Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, which has been selling US$250,000 (S$313,000) tickets on its space plane, hopes to have its first launch early next year.

Virgin Galactic promises to reach the Karman Line. Tourists will experience weightlessness at some point during the flight.

Mr Lim states confidently that he and his company IN.Genius will be as successful, if not more successful, than the British tycoon.

"We will be able to offer people more than three hours in space and it will most likely be cheaper as well," claims Mr Lim.

He will design the craft such that normal folk, including children and the elderly, will be able to experience it.

To raised eyebrows, he refuses to divulge more about the craft that will send the first Singaporean into space.

But he does show us pictures of test launches at a "central European" launch site. Photos show a group of people crowding at the vast test site around the silver- coloured craft as they prepare for lift-off.

Other photos show the design of a spacesuit, and a group of experts pointing to a map, trying to predict where the craft would land.

He is cagey about specifics about the craft and the launch site and even the investors involved, citing commercial secrecy concerns.

But he does reveal gleefully that there have been eight test flights and that the most recent one resulted in the craft going up 27km and staying there for 70 minutes.

Anything is possible

The more crucial reason for sending a Singaporean into near-space?

"We place so much emphasis on doing well on paper, like achievements in competitions like the International Mathematical Olympiad.

"I wanted to show young Singaporeans that anything is possible if we just apply our knowledge in real-life situations," Mr Lim says.

When quizzed about how he is going to accomplish all of this in such a short time, he does not appear too fussed. "Can one, lah," he declares with a grin.

So far, it has been a one-man mission.

The entrepreneur, who lives in a house in the Siglap area, says he has pumped in "millions" of his own dollars into the project which has already cost about "tens of millions of dollars".

What is clear is that he is parlaying his more than 20 years of experience in the aeronautics and defence industries and the contacts he has made, into the venture.

M r Lim, who has a brother and a sister, came from humble beginnings.

His father was a taxi driver and his mother, a seamstress. He was awarded a government scholarship to study in France.

He did a degree in mathematics followed by a Master of Science in electronics engineering and a Master of Physics at CPE Lyon.

In 1999, he was nominated to set up Singapore's first offshore Defence Technology Office for Europe in the Singapore Embassy in France. He spearheaded several research and development projects across Europe from there.

He left the public sector to join the private sector as a senior adviser with the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS).

"This project to send the first Singaporean into space is definitely not my first space project, so that is why I'm confident," says Mr Lim. At EADS, he worked on developing a space-based power system, a deep-space power generator and a Moon Rover, among others.

Perhaps this is why he is familiar with a community of aeronautics experts, a handful of whom are working with him on this project.

One of whom is Mr Timothy Kauffman, a former National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) engineer who is now CEO of TriVector International which provides aeronautical engineering expertise to agencies like Nasa.

He is in the selection panel that will help shortlist applicants. He has known Mr Lim for about two years and has worked with him on other projects.

Says Mr Kauffman: "I look forward to our companies working together that will create an ecosystem for space travel in the future".

He admits that this is an ambitious project. "It is a short timeframe but because of existing technology, Lim Seng will definitely be successful.

"And especially with his plans to foray into space tourism, it will be great for the industry as the entrance of more companies means that the price will be more competitive."

Seeking govt funding

It has been a one-man push so far, but now Mr Lim says he will be seeking funding from the Government.

"I wanted to push on first so that I can show that it can be done," he says.

Now that the launches have happened, he feels ready.

"Now that there is proof of our achievements for the project, I'm open to looking for government support as they will have a better idea of what they are funding."

Mr Lim says he is talking to several government agencies.

The Office for Space Technology and Industry (OSTin) confirms that Mr Lim has been in touch with it.

OSTin was formed in February under the Economic Development Board to build Singapore's space-satellite industry.

Dealing with cynics

Of course, with such grand plans, there are sure to be naysayers and cynics. But to these disbelievers, Mr Lim says: "You will just have to wait and see.

"I've handled so many tough projects, this is almost like second nature."

Until the big reveal, he is working on the life support system for the capsule while preparing for the next test.

With him at almost every step of this incredible journey is his daughter, Miss Nicole Lim, 21. She says: "My father has faced many challenges and I'm always surprised by his perseverance."

5 questions with Mr Lim Seng

Why doesn't IN.Genius have an office or a website?

The companies that want to work with me would have already known of me through word of mouth. They wouldn't need to Google me. What do you hope the impact of the space project will be?

I hope this will inspire Singaporeans to change the kiasu culture into a 'can-do' culture. How innovative were you as a kid?

My primary school, Monk's Hill, was near Newton Food Centre. I dug a big hole in the schoolyard, under the fence, so that all students could access the hawker centre directly without going through the school gate, which is very far away. My reward? Public caning.

Why do you want the first pilot to be Singaporean?

My intent is to show our youths that a normal Singaporean can dare to dream and make things happen. And I wish to show the world that a small nation like Singapore can reach for the stars.

Going 20km up... that's not outer space. Why call it space then?

Crossing the 20km Armstrong mark is defined as space. Outer space, on the other hand, is defined as 100km

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