As a child, Singapore-born Lynette Tan was fascinated with space. At the age of five, she made her first “space rocket” out of an oversized cardboard box that she found at home and spent hours playing in it, envisioning herself travelling through the cosmos and being among the stars.
A career in the space field would have seemed like the next natural step after graduating from university, but after obtaining a Master’s in Chemical Engineering from Stanford University in 2003, Lynette realised there was no clear path ahead to break into the industry.
Over the next decade or so, she worked in both the government and private sectors, in roles ranging from centre director at the Singapore Economic Development Board to business development at GlaxoSmithKline in Singapore and Malaysia. During this time, she also wondered how to create opportunities for herself and others like her, who wanted to be a part of the space economy.
“I thought about how cool it would be to create a roadmap for a career that was ‘out-of-this-world’, a roadmap towards the ultimate innovation frontier,” explains the 43-year-old mother of two.
In 2007, Lynette sought to bring that roadmap to life. She says: “I joined a few other space enthusiasts, who were literally pioneers of the space industry in this part of the world. Back then, there was no commercial space sector to speak of. It was the perfect opportunity to do something brave and bold.”
Together, they co-founded Singapore Space & Technology Limited (SSTL), a non-governmental space organisation based in Singapore within the aerospace industry. It was a pioneer in South-east Asia’s space sector, being one of only two local space companies to venture into a non-existent space industry in Singapore.
Simply put, SSTL functions as an industry association that offers consulting services to space start-ups and organisations in Singapore and around the world. This includes generating intelligence reports on the space sector to innovation sprints (investigating ideas similar to a hackathon), conducting market analysis, and nurturing talent development. SSTL’s Space Accelerator Programme – the first in Singapore – offers start-ups access to funding and business advice, as well as networking opportunities within the industry.
This year, SSTL has projected that the combined value of the 40 start-ups (from 18 countries) in the programme is estimated to be over US$850 million ($1.14 billion). SSTL is also known for its annual Global Space and Technology Convention (GSTC), which it has held here since 2007.
Today, GSTC, which facilitates dialogues and networking opportunities between G2G, B2B and B2G, sees over 1,000 delegates from governments and space organisations attending from across the world.
“SSTL works with organisations and start-ups globally, not just in Singapore,” Lynette elaborates. “However, these collaborations add value to the Singapore space ecosystem. Recently, at this year’s GSTC, an agreement was inked between SSTL and the Polish Space Technology Cluster, which aims to encourage collaboration opportunities between the Singapore and Polish space ecosystems.
“In the last decade, Poland has established itself as a rising star in the European space scene, and now has a growing industry of 73 companies with a total revenue of 85 million euros ($125 million),” she says.
Creating space for growth in Singapore
In 2021, Lynette founded Space Faculty, a spin-off of SSTL and a platform that offers educational resources, as well as Stem and space enrichment programmes conducted by industry experts, to young adults and companies.
She had noticed a big talent gap in the space industry worldwide, because conversations about careers in space only happen at the tertiary level – and so Space Faculty exists to help build a “learning roadmap” for students.
The organisation collaborates with schools such as NUS High School and Hwa Chong Institution to design specific learning modules for space in the schools’ everyday syllabus. It also helms The International Space Challenge (ISC), a global space design competition for students based on real world problems. Previous ISC participants and winners have also gone on to join the space industry here.
It’s no secret that the Stem field is male-dominated. According to a 2022 Nanyang Technological University report, the lack of gender equity is most apparent in engineering and information technology education, where only 21 per cent and 29 per cent of tertiary graduates respectively are women.
This gender imbalance is amplified in Stem-related research and development, where women make up only 20 per cent of the workforce. This is one of the reasons why Lynette started Space Faculty: to help more young people develop Stem skills, especially what she calls Stem 2.0 – Stem skills that are industry- relevant and industry-ready.
“In the past few years, we have also consistently grown female participation, and now we’re close to equalising the gender representation,” she shares. “For instance, we have close to 40 per cent female participation, from less than 10 per cent just three years ago.”
Mapping new frontiers for potential talents
As an island that’s too small to launch rockets into space, how then, does Singapore come into play? The answer lies in developing satellite capabilities. In 2022, the Singapore government announced that it would be investing $150 million in space technology R&D for sectors like maritime and aerospace, as well as for GPS systems.
“The space industry is going to be one of the biggest growth drivers of the global economy in the near future, because it is no longer dominated by government-to-government partnerships or monopolised by large space-faring nations,” says Lynette.
“For instance, satellite data is going to be the next big data revolution. The data we get from Earth observation can be used to improve life on Earth. It can be applied specifically to the agricultural industry (helping farmers map their resources, track the development of their crops, track the health of their cattle using satellites); support traffic control on air, land and sea; for urban and rural space planning; and for navigation technologies.”
Space data is also a game-changer when it comes to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, as it can help predict natural disasters and their trajectories in order for appropriate resources to be deployed and lives to be saved. Lynette shares that Space Faculty is already developing pilot programmes to support the Changi Regional Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) Coordination Centre by helping to facilitate the use of satellite data to better predict weather changes, and in turn, possible disasters.
The future is in the stars
Lynette foresees that greater participation of the private sector and the consumerisation of space means that non-traditional space-faring countries such as Singapore can be a part of the growing space economy.
“Space technology is becoming more ubiquitous and relevant to everyday life on earth for the common man on the street,” she explains. “For example, we use it when we play games such as Pokemon Go, locate restaurants, or navigate the drive from one place to another in another country.”
Life science experimentation in space will also help reinforce Singapore’s status as a biosciences hub, she points out. In fact, Space Faculty is Singapore’s only administrator for the use of a Japanese experiment facility to conduct education, scientific and medical experiments on board the International Space Station (a multi-nation laboratory orbiting 400km above the Earth’s surface).
Says Lynette: “Space Faculty has strategic partnerships with the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine and the NUS Centre for Biomedical Ethics to launch life science experiments in space, and also develop the
ethical frameworks to support these types of experiments.”
Research derived from life science experiments in space can help support larger space missions in the future.
Nurturing Singapore talents
Just as Singapore is a hub for the region for so many industries, Lynette believes that space companies across the region can leverage the strong talent pool in Singapore, and set up base here to reach out to global space players.
Lynette hopes that more women leaders in the Stem space will share their experiences to help pave the way for other women to join the industry. As for herself, she takes time out of her schedule to speak at women’s conferences. She also mentors and encourages teens who are interested in being a part of the field.
“There is a global talent crunch across virtually every industry,” she notes. “In space, that talent crunch is far more acute – several times over, in fact. For the space industry to flourish, we need to help young talent understand the opportunities available, and nurture their interest in space from as early on as possible.
“This is something that I’m deeply passionate about. Contributing a deep bench strength of great talent is one of the most critical ways that Singapore is going to be able to participate in the global space economy,” says Lynette.
She shares that Space Faculty facilitates internships for both local and international students to understand the space industry, and shadow leaders or work in space companies. It is also expanding its access for students to participate in space experiments, such as in space robotics, where it sends student codes to the international space station to navigate “flying robots” in space.
It even sent microgravity experiments to the space station, where astronauts performed the experiments live for the students.
From a child who used to pretend she was traversing the universe to one of the region’s leading space talents, Lynette has certainly come a long way. As challenging as the journey has been, she says that she cannot imagine doing anything else.
“I love that I am at the forefront of humanity’s technology developments in space. My work is intellectually engaging, and I am always with people, exploring and experimenting with ways to overcome these challenges.”
PHOTOGRAPHY Anissa Athirah
ART DIRECTION Adeline Eng
HAIR & MAKEUP Benedict Choo, using Chanel Beauty