By SGN | 4 Sep 2023
In 2018, when Gang Kai joined the Goddard Space Flight Center – the oldest and largest of NASA’s ten field centres in the US – he wondered if there were any other Singaporeans around.
Situated 15km northeast of Washington DC, Goddard is one of the world’s largest space research organisations with more than 10,000 scientists and engineers. What were the chances of locating fellow countrymen in the haystack of its sprawling premises?
“I looked out for other Singaporeans, hoping to build a community,” Gang Kai says. One clue he kept an eye out for was surnames that are commonly found in Singapore and Malaysia.
Within months, his wish came true.
Forming Singapore connections
“I met Jonathan at an American Geophysical Union conference, when I walked past his poster presentation,” Gang Kai recalls. “I spoke with him about his research and found out he was Singaporean, had just finished his PhD, and was joining Goddard the next month.”
More than three years later, Gang Kai would bump into a third Singaporean, Li Hsia, ‘by accident’.
“It was my first week at Goddard,” Li Hsia recounts, “and I had burned myself with hot water trying to make some tea. I was walking up and down the corridors looking for help to find a first aid kit.”
Noticing two people chatting outside an office, Li Hsia found one of their accents strikingly recognisable. As it turned out, Gang Kai’s office was just down the hallway from hers.
“It was very fortuitous to bump into a fellow Singaporean – a very rare thing in America,” she says. “Gang Kai quickly got me squared away and bandaged up, and we’ve been friends ever since.”
In subsequent months, the trio of Singaporeans continued to run into each other at work, conferences and Singaporean events.
“We meet up for Lunar New Year or National Day at the embassy, or occasional meals with Singaporeans in DC,” Jonathan says. “I enjoy the food and the company at these gatherings.”
Singaporeans being Singaporeans, each meet-up typically has a gastronomic focus. “Sometimes a new restaurant has just opened, or sometimes someone wants to try making curry puffs,” Li Hsia shares.
Indeed, food is the best way to draw these NASA researchers out to DC. “If there’s no food, we won’t go,” Gang Kai jokes. But he admits that there are other perks to gathering with Singaporeans.
“It’s really a support system. You see friendly faces, you hear that familiar accent. You can relax and not put on the American accent we use at work,” he says. “And joining a community like Singapore Global Network accelerates this process of building connections.”
Varied paths to NASA
For these three Singaporeans, a career at NASA was never something they planned. All of them simply followed their love for science and took on opportunities that came their way.
Jonathan didn’t grow up dreaming of space. In the course of completing his Master’s and PhD in astrophysical sciences at Princeton, however, he got to collaborate with NASA researchers, which opened doors for his postdoctoral career.
Though Gang Kai pursued a degree in astronomy at the University of Colorado Boulder, he never thought he would end up at NASA. Similarly, Li Hsia assumed that a position at NASA would be as unattainable as becoming president or an astronaut. She started out studying condensed matter physics and only switched into space physics later.
Because NASA is a federal agency, it cannot employ foreigners as civil servants. Instead, there are various programmes and pathways for non-Americans to work at the organisation.
Li Hsia is enrolled in the NASA Postdoctoral Program, and she beat dozens of others to clinch the spot. “It was a longshot application. My advisor in grad school encouraged me to go for it,” she shares. “What makes it so prestigious is that it is funded by NASA Headquarters.”
Science ain’t easy
When it comes to space research, Gang Kai points out that there can be a stark contrast between perception and reality.
“Even my wife thinks: Why can’t I be like Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar and just blast off on a spaceship?” he says. “But what I really do is sit at a laptop, code, analyse data, and write papers.”
His study of space weather and solar interaction with space environments – as with Jonathan’s research on plasma in Earth’s magnetosphere – is largely solitary. The work often involves hitting walls and feeling stuck, sometimes for months. Solutions don’t miraculously appear in dreams or materialise in eureka moments.
With Li Hsia’s lab experiments, progress can likewise be slow, incremental and emotionally trying. “Going to grad school prepares you for that,” she laughs. To support the Artemis programme – NASA’s renewed quest to colonise the moon – and understand how habitable the moon’s environment is, she examines lunar soil samples collected by the Apollo missions more than 50 years ago.
Nevertheless, every small breakthrough is gratifying. “You know that what you’re doing is something that has never been done before. And you’re contributing something new to the body of human knowledge,” Li Hsia says.
“One of the joys of research is discovering new things,” Jonathan adds. “Some of my work has been used to help explain spacecraft observations.”
The possibilities are endless
In Singapore, the space industry has recently entered a vibrant new phase, especially in the development of small satellites flying at low Earth orbit. Dozens of spacetech startups have sprouted up. Singapore has also become a signatory of the Artemis Accords, paving the way for greater collaboration in the global space ecosystem.
“Back when I was applying for university, there was at most one astrophysics minor offered in Singapore,” Gang Kai notes. “But now both NUS and NTU have satellite research groups funded by OSTIn (the Office for Space Technology and Industry).”
Beyond commercial applications, Gang Kai hopes that Singapore institutions will expand programmes for fundamental space research. “Research and innovation have a symbiotic relationship. Each drives the other,” he explains. His study of space weather, for instance, gathers vital knowledge needed to maintain satellites’ positions and help them withstand the disruption of solar storms.
To those aspiring to enter the space industry or work at NASA, all three Singaporeans emphasise that there’s no fixed path to follow. What matters is following one’s curiosity and passion for science.
“In the US, there are a number of fellowships that non-citizens can apply for,” Jonathan says. “If your interests are aligned, there’s no harm giving it a shot.”
A common misconception, Li Hsia points out, is that a science or engineering background is mandatory. “There are so many startups being founded. There are so many roles that need to come together to create the future we envision,” she says.
Space exploration is a massive undertaking that requires not just scientists and engineers, but also project managers, administrators, writers, artists, photographers, and more.
Just like the vast expanse of space, the possibilities of the industry are practically endless.
About Gang Kai, Li Hsia and Jonathan
Gang Kai is an assistant research scientist at the Goddard Space Flight Center who studies how solar activity influences the space environment of Earth and other planets. He is also a research associate professor teaching space weather and planetary sciences at the Catholic University of America. Connect with him here.
Li Hsia is is a postdoctoral fellow at the Goddard Space Flight Center who conducts experiments on lunar soil samples to understand the environment of radiation, water and organic matter on the moon. Connect with her here.
Jonathan is an assistant research scientist at the University of Maryland, College Park who studies magnetospheric plasma, with a focus on magnetic reconnection and collisionless shocks. Connect with him here.