Building a rocket isn’t easy work and even less so in the little red dot. From strict regulations to a lack of
infrastructure and testing grounds, there’s a great deal that stands in the way of reaching for the stars.
As Dhruv Mittal, team leader of Singapore Propulsion Labs (SPL) explains, “We have Singaporeans who are experts in rocketry but they don’t practise in Singapore. There’s a huge amount of interest but no supply of resources for these people. They have to go overseas.” When SPL—a society comprising rocketry enthusiasts from Singapore’s top universities—set out to dismantle these barriers, the aim was to launch a homegrown rocket at the Spaceport America Cup. Success at the world’s largest student rocketry competition would send a strong message in support of aerospace engineering in Singapore.
For an entire year, a team of 45 students juggled university lectures, exams and designing a rocket that could take to the skies. With mentorship and support from Equatorial Space Systems (ESS)—the only rocket propulsion company in Singapore—the team was able to make use of lab equipment and source the parts required to build their rocket. “Two months out from the competition, we had everything ready in terms of the design, documentation, and reports,” Mittal explains.
As such, they were left with only one obstacle to overcome. Unfortunately, it wasn’t an engineering problem but a legal one—to launch the rocket, the engine needed to be certified and there was a chance that the approvals wouldn’t come through in time.
The weeks passed without news and the team thought it best to start raising funds for a backup plan. While it wasn’t ideal, they had located another engine that fit the dimensions of their rocket and had already been certified. It was simply a matter of importing it from the US. After some convincing, Nanyang Technological University (NTU) agreed to source the engine for the team—a process involving a truckload of logistics and a very lengthy chain of communication. So long in fact that it was left open for mishaps.
A week out from the competition, the first engine was still uncertified and the second one was held up at customs due to missing documentation. “When we say we have customs issues, it’s never because of safety concerns. It’s not like they think that we’re shipping in explosives,” says Mittal, putting the misconception to rest. “It’s always logistical issues—delayed shipments, lost documents or poor communication.”
This delay ended up being the nail in the coffin for SPL’s Spaceport ambitions as the team found out—not for the first time nor will this be the last—that bureaucracy is no rocket science. It is, in fact, a far more tedious and painstaking process that baffles even the geniuses among us.
Fast forward to a month after the Spaceport America Cup and customs finally let the rocket engine out of its confines. Although the team was still reeling from the setback, they now had—for the first time since their inception—all the parts to put together a rocket.
With a year to go until the next competition, they went back into fundraising mode, hoping to carry out tests and find out if their so-called Project Mynah was worthy of its name.
The rocket was christened so as the iconic Javan Mynah birds, commonly found in Singapore, are always the first to break into birdsong in the morning; a fitting title to symbolise the start of SPL’s journey as the first student rocket team from Singapore.
Factoring in the costs for setup and safety equipment, SPL was battling a tight budget and was in desperate need of a win. “We started building a partnership with MARA Technological University (UITM) in Malaysia, who helped us find physical space in Selangor to test our rocket,” Mittal shares. With a wary distrust for mail carriers, Mittal decided to load the rocket in the back of his car and transport it to Malaysia himself. Armed with approval letters from NTU and UITM, he made it through customs without a hitch and in time for testing.
Project Mynah’s first test, in Mittal’s words, was “rushed” and a “failure”. However, it did show enough promise to draw in some new eyes. A fresh SGD10,000 investment gave SPL the runway to redesign its rocket’s fins, payload bay and recovery system, and eventually conduct a second test, which went off without a hitch.
Most of the year flew by during this process and once again, the team was approaching launch day. “We decided not to apply for the Spaceport America Cup but another competition called FAR-51025,” Mittal explains. It was a decision prompted by the results of testing. Although Project Mynah was successful in its second test, the hiccups along the way convinced the team to make a more prudent entry into the rocketry scene.
While Spaceport was big league territory—with competitors who have had multiple rockets under their belt—FAR favoured collaboration over competition. Teams were known to share knowledge and help one another out during the event. Participation in FAR seemed more conducive for learning and growing.
With their entire budget spent on testing and redesign, SPL members were left to fund their own travel to the Mojave Desert in California for FAR-51025. They also had to find a way to carry over an entire rocket between the eight of them.
There was the nose cone, or “the pointy tip”, which was checked-in in a cardboard box marked “fragile”; the payload bay and recovery bay, which were both stuffed inside suitcases alongside clothes and toiletries. There were the lower airframe and engine, which with no other recourse, had to be placed in the hands of DHL’s package delivery service.
The cardboard box and suitcases made it through, as did all eight team members. However, a day before the competition, the engine and lower airframe—which had arrived in the US almost two weeks prior were still held up at customs. Desperate to avoid a repeat of the past year, the team dove into the bureaucratic web, launching phone calls at every DHL office and customs broker in the region to expedite the process.
Met with nothing but dead ends, Mittal decided to drive down to the customs office—200 kilometres away in Los Angeles—as a last-ditch attempt, while the rest of the team asked FAR’s organisers for assistance.
“I had almost made it to LA when I heard from the team. The organisers found us an old lower airframe that had been used in a previous flight. By some stroke of luck, it was roughly the same diameter as the rest of our rocket,” Mittal recounts. “Now, we just needed an engine.”
For rocketry teams with bigger budgets, it was common practice to travel with spare engines. In fact, some even brought along backup rockets. “We managed to find a team who was willing to sell us their spare engine for 2,000 dollars.”
This offer came with two problems. First, SPL didn’t have a spare USD2,000 in its budget—in fact, it didn’t even have money budgeted for food and accommodation. Second, the engine in question was of a kind it had never worked with before. Project Mynah had been designed around a hybrid engine whereas the one on offer was a solid engine.
Technicalities aside, what this meant was a significantly higher chance of SPL’s rocket blowing up. “The team was panicking at this point. What if we rounded up the money, the rocket blew up, and we had to walk away with nothing?”
For Mittal, it was time to make a tough decision—a risky rocket launch or a flight home with nothing to show for all their effort. “In my mind, we’d been given an opportunity. We had to take it. I lied to the team and said we’d secured funding for the engine and could go ahead with the launch.” He’d spend the next two hours actually trying to secure funding, in the absence of which, Mittal planned to cover the costs himself.
When it came time for the launch, SPL’s rushed simulations with the solid engine didn’t offer much confidence. Standing behind the safety bunker, the team waited as the countdown from 10 started. The anticipation became palpable as the announcement made its way to zero and finally, the slender red-and-white rocket took to the skies. There was clapping and cheering before the announcer commented, “Very nice flight path”.
Reaching an altitude close to 3.2km, not only did Project Mynah succeed in meeting the competition’s stipulated height, it also earned third place. “I don’t think there was any way we could have expected this.”
All of this work to launch a rocket begs the question of why? For SPL’s investors, it’s not a matter of recouping their money, but making a statement. The success of Project Mynah—helmed entirely by local students and recent graduates—proves that there is room for aerospace talent to be nurtured in Singapore. It provides an incentive to build logistics and improve access to resources.
“I know students in polytechnics who are geniuses,” Mittal says. “They have a deep interest in this field and they’ve even tried to build their own engines. With Project Mynah, we can now go to people with proof that even without the support of legitimate systems, being impeded by a tonne regulations and having no real lab space, we’ve managed to build and fly a rocket.”
For SPL as a society, Project Mynah lends a sense of legitimacy. It’s no longer just a group of hobbyists; it’s a real organisation. “In Singapore, those with theoretical knowledge now have a place they can turn to, to practise rocketry in the real world.”
Finally, for the individual team members—who suffered many a disappointment at the hands of customs, spent significant sums of money to travel to the US, braved the harsh climate of the Mojave desert, and shacked up in tents while armed with sticks to keep snakes away—the question of “why” comes down to something incredibly simple. “I just want to see things fly.”