As I sat down on a plush leather sofa that looked out from a spacious rectangular room bounded on two sides with full length windows onto the recently built town of Putrajaya, I couldn’t quite believe I was sitting next to the Director General of Malaysia’s National Space Agency, known as ANGKASA, and one of his Science Officers, Mr Fairos Asillam. I’d gone to Malaysia to spend Christmas with my parents, who currently live in the capital city Kuala Lumpur. Surely I was supposed to be lying by the pool?!
A few days before I left for KL I decided to google what Malaysia was up to in the way of space exploration. I stumbled across the space agency website and learned that their head quarters was just a twenty minute drive south of KL. While I’m there, I thought, it would be interesting to learn about another country’s space efforts (or perhaps it’s just me that invites herself to space agencies when I go on holiday...)
I had a little help in organising this excursion. My mum works in an international school in KL and when she arrived signed up to help with the school’s aerospace club, where she met team leader Sam Gibbs (who by strange coincidence had spent a large chunk of his life sailing square riggers around the world on the same ships as my dad, whose hobby is also tall ship sailing), who is the director of Advanced Science Education Asia, and Aerospace Education Services; his vision is to develop science education infrastructure within the country.
Anyway, him and my mum had spoken about what I do and exchanged stories about my trips to the Kennedy Space Center earlier in the year (she had even asked me to get him a pair of the astronaut oven mitts that he had been envious of after I sent her a pair, which I was gladly able to deliver to him in person!) Sam had indicated to mum it would be nice to meet if I was ever back in KL, so I thought I might as well email him to see what could happen. Quite a lot it would seem. Not knowing anything about Malaysian space activities I hadn’t the foggiest as to where to begin, but fortunately Sam was the man with a plan. He made email introductions with me to various key people in astronomy research, outreach and space tourism activities, and I soon had interviews set up at the National Space Agency, ANGKASA, and with the Space Tourism Society, Malaysian Chapter.
I met Sam one evening for a quick briefing (over some beers of course!) who gave me some background info on Malaysian space activities and the outreach efforts he makes as part of his popular ‘space camps’. The next day my dad kindly drove me down to Putrajaya (I was disappointed we weren’t going to the neighbouring Cyberjaya which sounded much more appropriate) and I eventually found the space agency, on the eighth floor of a very normal looking office block. There wasn’t even a sign on the outside of the building to indicate what it was – just a tiny sticker on a nearby information sign, listing all the companies in each block of offices. So, up to the eighth floor I went and asked for my contact, Mr Fairos Assilam, who accompanied me to Dr Mustafa’s office.
There I learned a little history of ANGKASA. It was only established in 2002 and has seen three satellites launch: TiungSat-1 (interestingly developed with Surrey Satellite Technology back in the UK); MEASAT (comprising three communications satellites); and remote sensing satellite RazakSAT (which failed 8 months after launch). RazakSAT was placed in an equatorial orbit – a decision based on the fact Malaysia is equatorial and would provide greater ground coverage of the country than if it was in a polar orbit. The agency are currently building the next RozakSAT but have yet to decide which orbit to place it in (or what it will officially be named). They are also building their own clean room satellite facility, and are focusing on completing two legal documents in 2012: their National Space Policy, and their Space Act. Malaysia also has a National Science Center and a planetarium which act as hubs for national astronomy events. They had two experiments in the Mars500 project, and are perhaps most well known for their angkasawan (astronaut) program, a joint project with Russia, who sent Dr Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor to the International Space Station in 2007. But that’s another story, as is my meeting with the Space Tourism Society president... (I hope to publish the results of that meeting more formally elsewhere).
Unfortunately timings didn’t work out to meet with the other contacts Sam hoped I would meet. In particular Professor Datuk Mazlan Binti Othman, the first Director General of the space agency and whose work lead to the Angkasawan program, Dr Sheikh himself, and astronomers at Langkawi island observatory, but I have been introduced over email to them at least. And since my parents are out here until July, there may still be time to fill in some of the blanks...!