“Imagine going to the streets and saying ‘we’re sending a robot to the Moon’,” says Mohd Izmir Yamin, 34.
“They’ll say, ‘it’s crazy’. And they are right, it is crazy in the sense of, where’s your resources? Your financial capital? Your technological know-how? It’s a mind-boggling thing.”
But the aerospace engineer and his team are doing just that.
Izmir is the team leader of Independence-X, one of 16 teams in the Google Lunar XPrize (GLXP) competition vying to be the first to land a rover on the Moon by next year. Independence-X is the only Malaysian and South-East Asian team participating in the competition.
The technology needed to land a rover on the Moon already exists, but those efforts were funded by governments; GLXP was created as an initiative to make going to the Moon (and beyond) affordable and accessible to the private sector.
To win GLXP’s US$20mil (RM82mil) grand prize, the teams must be the first to land a privately-funded (at least 90% of the mission’s cost) rover, travel 500m and send high-definition images and videos back to Earth.
Izmir has always wanted to help people living in remote parts of the world.
“My main agenda in life is to help people who don’t have access to food, water and education,” he says. To do that, he believes the best way is through connecting to them by launching communication satellites.
“Through these satellites, we can stream online education courses, we can teach them how to farm, how to manage resources, how to build their own micro-economy,” he enthuses.
Of course, communication satellites aren’t the only way to reach the needy, but he says it’s the most cost-effective method.
“Launching a satellite is very costly, but putting (up) telecommunication towers is even costlier. Each tower will cost about RM5mil, and it can only cover a radius of about 5km which means you can only reach a limited number of people and you need to have a power supply.”
To turn his dream of helping others into a reality, Izmir needed to figure out an economical way to deliver satellites into space.
As such, he decided to devote himself to learning how to make rockets. After secondary school, young Izmir enrolled for a diploma in aerospace engineering in 2001 and has been developing rockets ever since.
When GLXP was announced in 2007, it was a golden opportunity to learn what he would need to realise his dream.
“It’s not just about knowing how to do it (sending a rover to the Moon), but also understanding the regulatory process that governs this sort of activity, which is very complicated,” Izmir says.
The experience has enabled the team to build contacts with space agencies and launch providers; gain valuable exposure and knowledge which would have been otherwise difficult to obtain; and, ultimately, get involved in the space industry ecosystem.
All this, in turn, helped to fast-track Izmir’s long-term dream of helping the underprivileged.
However, he stresses that Independence-X is not just about gaining experience; his team is in it to win it.
“We are joining GLXP with the intention of winning it. We’re not joining it just to … make up the numbers. Winning it wins us a lot of things.”
The journey from ground to Moon takes about two days in total. The services of a commercial launch provider will be enlisted for the first leg of the journey (a commercial launch provider is essentially a third party that sends the rover on a rocket from the ground into Earth’s orbit).
Once it reaches orbit, the rocket will detach itself from the spacecraft containing the rover. From there, the journey will be completely in the hands of Independence-X. The spacecraft will be fitted with a smaller rocket which will send it to the Moon. Once the spacecraft reaches there, the rover will be released.
So far, preparations are about halfway through. Final tests will be held early next year and the mission is expected to be fully completed by May.
Izmir admits that the journey has been hard and he has thought of giving up before.
Losing the support of family and friends did not help. While many of his loved ones are behind him, others have not been so supportive. “Their definition of success is doing business in a short period of time and getting lots of money. Success, for me, should be sustainable and be about helping people. Even if it’ll take 10 years to develop a rocket, you’ll see that value is being built,” he says.
Izmir admits that getting too preoccupied in the mission has cost him quite a few relationships as well.
“You have to be mindful that when you deal too much with machines, your heart becomes a machine also,” he shares.
“We should always maintain the human aspect, that thoughtfulness. Don’t get too engrossed in the technical that you don’t care about people.”
But Izmir – who is featured on Episode Nine of the JJ Abrams-produced Moon Shot, a web series on the teams participating in GLXP – says he is ultimately spurred to go on because of the incredible opportunity GLXP offers: “It’s a chance of a lifetime. It’s a chance to prove ourselves.”
It is also a chance for the father of one to be a positive role model for his son: “I want him to be firm and I want him to do what he likes.”
Indeed, having his two-year-old son see him follow his dreams would mean the world, or in this case, the Moon, to him.
Watch all nine episodes of web series Moon Shot on Google Lunar XPrize’s YouTube channel.