Reach for the Moon

22 February 2017

For the past ten years, Malaysia’s Independence X team has been in a global competition to launch a spacecraft to the moon. As the competition reaches its final leg, team members Izmir Yamin and Bostami Ahmad share the motivations behind their commitment to the project.

Imagine a world where education is free and accessible for everyone, a world where access to the Internet is free and available on every inch of the planet, and even the most impoverished areas have access to clean water. This was what Malaysia’s Independence X team thought about when they first entered the Google Lunar XPrize competition, in which privately funded teams of engineers and entrepreneurs around the world race to see who can first land a robotic spacecraft on the moon by the end of 2017. The robotic spacecraft will need to travel at least 500m and transmit high-definition videos and images back to earth. The prize purse: USD30 million.

The competition started ten years ago in 2007, which means that teams have been developing their technology for a decade.

“Honestly, it’s not about the money. Our team is driven by the need to make a difference in the world. Satellite and propulsion technology can help change the world, literally!” says Izmir Yamin, team leader of Independence X, which has nine members.

Independence X is a company first set up by Izmir in 2003 to develop technology and services related to nanosatellite launch vehicles, propulsions, altitude control, power systems and communication. So when Google announced the Lunar XPrize competition, he took it as an opportunity to push his capabilities further.

“Technological advancement and money can be obtained through many other avenues. But I saw the competition as a way for us to connect and gain access to some of the greatest tech minds in the world. It provides us with the best platform to bounce and discuss ideas,” explains Izmir.

Bostami Ahmad and Izmir Yamin

Izmir also laments on the lack of drive to develop intellectual property in Malaysia –Malaysians are fast becoming a society of super users but not creators. Hence, by leading Independence X in the competition, Izmir hopes he can help inspire his fellow Malaysians to be more innovative and creative.

“We need to build our country from the ground up and not rely on foreign [direct] investments [FDI]. Look at Germany – they don’t depend on FDI at all. We, on the other hand, rely so much on foreign resources. For example, Petronas, until today, relies on Russian satellites to mine resources,” he says.

Izmir’s teammate, Bostami Ahmad, joined the Independence X team with the same ideals. After years of designing automobiles (he was a designer with Proton and even had a collaborative stint with Lamborghini in Italy), Bostami was looking to add more meaning and significance to his work. So when he heard about Independence X, he was in.

“To me, developing rocket and satellite technology means developing humanity. With this technology, we can transform how the world works,” says Bostami.

Bostami goes on to explain that today, communication via satellite is controlled by big corporations. If a small player like Independence X is able to build solutions around space technology, then they can also work towards making communication free and accessible, which will definitely empower the rural and impoverished areas around the world.

“We need to connect the world in order to build our society. With free satellite communication, we can provide access to education, ideas, and even clean water and healthcare,” explains Bostami.

Both Bostami and Izmir believe that world communication can be more effective using satellites rather than the current telecommunication towers, as one launched satellite in orbit can cover an area that would take 5,000 telecommunications towers to cover. It would be so much more cost-effective, they say.

Last January, Google announced the five teams that managed to secure verified launch contracts by the set deadline to move forward in the final stage of the competition: SpaceIL (Israel), MoonExpress (USA), Synergy Moon (International), Team Indus (India) and Hakuto (Japan). Although Independence X isn’t in, they have, however, merged and partnered up with Synergy Moon.

“Although very important, the competition is secondary to our primary motivation. We are still able to carry the Malaysian flag and contribute technologically to the lunar craft. We just couldn’t be a standalone team because of the lack of a significant aerospace industry in Malaysia, hence the lack of support,” says Izmir.

All throughout the competition, Independence X has been financially supported independently, through the services they provide and the different companies that Izmir has initiated. Coming this far in a competition this huge – that’s even seen participants from multi-national companies eliminated – is testament to the capabilities of the team.

“All we want to do is to inspire people,” says Izmir.

To learn more about the Google Lunar Xprize, visit lunar.xprize.org.

By Zan Azlee

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