From the Red Dot to Outer Space: 5 Things We Learnt from a Singaporean NASA Researcher

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to do important work at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, better known as NASA. That’s what Singaporean scientific researcher Poh Gang Kai discovered when he was hired by NASA to work at the Goddard Space Flight Centre in Greenbelt, Maryland. His role is studying the space environment on Mars so that humans can, as one famous television show proclaimed, boldly go where no one has gone before.

18 July 2019 / By SGN

Gang Kai has always had a passion for astronomy since he was a child, revealing that “it was the beautiful pictures of galaxies, nebulas and planets that first sparked my interest”.

A voracious learner, he relied on library research to supplement the lack of space-related curriculum in school, culminating in his participation in the Astronomy Club at National Junior College. Realising this was his dream career, he flew to the United States after doing his National Service and spent five years earning a doctorate in space sciences at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

It is not (very) difficult to get a job at NASA.

According to Gang Kai, the key is getting your name out in the scientific community. This means doing quality research as well as attending scientific conferences and networking. His current supervisor at NASA, Dr. Jared Espley, hired him based on his research experience, which was a good fit for the group Dr. Espley headed.

NASA is much more than just rocket scientists.

Despite having dreamt about working at NASA since childhood, Gang Kai was still surprised to discover just how diverse and multi-disciplinary the NASA community is. With tens of thousands of employees across 12 facilities in the United States, NASA counts space systems engineers and heliophysicists among their number. In fact, you don’t even need a background in a space-related field to work at NASA, as it also hires scientists with backgrounds in biology, chemistry and Earth Sciences.

There isn’t a dull or mundane moment at NASA.

From the Red Dot to Outer Space: 5 Things We Learnt from a Singaporean NASA Researcher(2) Gang Kai (right) at a weekly meeting with his supervisor, analysing data collected from NASA’s MAVEN mission to Mars

A typical day for Gang Kai starts with spending time with his diverse group of colleagues over coffee! “All great ideas and collaborations start from a conversation,” he said. Concepts for potential NASA missions, including sending humans to Mars, are often conceived during such informal group meetings.

Instead of having a set of routine tasks to be completed each day, he revealed, scientists and engineers are constantly engaged in multiple research projects, with each project consisting of several phases. For instance, NASA engineers involved in the development of an orbiting satellite will first design and build certain instruments on the satellite, then do onsite testing, and finally launch the satellite!

Each day presents its own set of challenges, which Gang Kai says keeps life at NASA exciting.

His research could help prevent billions of dollars in damage.

Gang Kai is currently working on research projects that provide valuable insight into how the Sun affects the space environment around Mercury, Earth and Mars.

He likens his work with research into typhoons and hurricanes on Earth, in order to learn how to predict them and mitigate their damage. The main difference is that the geomagnetic storms caused by the Sun’s interaction with each planet’s space environment could have consequences for the entire planet. For example, it would cost billions of dollars if crucial satellites orbiting Earth are damaged or destroyed, since Earth is very reliant on satellites for telecommunications and GPS.

According to Gang Kai, a massive geomagnetic storm today would cripple electrical grids worldwide, causing extensive blackouts. His research will better prepare Earth in preparation for future geomagnetic storms.

You can start your space adventure in Singapore!

There are several opportunities in Singapore to get involved in astronomy research.

From the Red Dot to Outer Space: 5 Things We Learnt from a Singaporean NASA Researcher(3) Gang Kai presenting at the 12th Annual Asia Oceania Geosciences Society (AOGS) conference in Singapore in 2015

Singapore is hosting the Asia Oceania Geosciences Society (AOGS) conference later this year, and Gang Kai strongly feels that the annual event is a good opportunity to learn more about space sciences. Nanyang Technological University also has a Satellite Research Centre which provides an environment for aspiring satellite and space enthusiasts to collaborate.

However, Gang Kai feels more can be done back home to raise awareness in the space sciences. He recommends that Singaporeans can get more involved if there are more stargazing activities and astronomy seminars organised. Recalling how his own astronomy journey began, he says “nothing is more inspiring than seeing Jupiter and its four moons, Saturn and its majestic rings, and beautiful star clusters lightyears away for the first time”.

Despite looking towards space, his heart is never far from home. As with many Singaporeans living overseas, he misses his family and especially the food! With technology, connecting with the family is much easier now, and Gang Kai regularly Facetimes with his parents back in Singapore and his brother, who is currently earning his doctorate in Stanford University.

However, it’s hard to find good and authentic Singaporean food in the US, so Gang Kai and his wife try their best to recreate his grandmother’s cooking as well as using sauce packets from Singapore to prepare iconic dishes like chicken rice and laksa.

He also makes the effort to reach out to other Singaporeans in the same state and becoming a part of the community. This gives him the chance to get together with fellow Singaporean expatriates living in the US, especially during the Chinese New Year and National Day holiday celebrations. He finds it fun and comforting to talk about the latest news back home over delicious homemade Singaporean food.

Gang Kai hopes that one day he can use his experience and expertise to help develop the space sector in Singapore. He is part of an ongoing movement that dreams of making Singapore a name in the global space industry. For him and others like him, space is truly the final frontier.


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