KUALA LUMPUR: Growing up watching planes take off and land at Alor Setar airport in the northern Malaysian state of Kedah left Tan Zu Puayen with a long-standing fascination with aircraft and flight.
So much so that he chose to pursue aerospace engineering all the way to a doctorate in the United States and dove into amateur rocketry, building and launching rockets as tall as 5m.
These amateur, unmanned rockets are propelled by rocket motors, with some able to reach an altitude of over 100km above Earth's surface - the edge of space - before segmenting and falling back to the ground.
His first high-power rocket, called Boleh One and measuring at 2.5m, got 600m off the ground in 2011 from the rocket launch site in Alabama.
“When I launched Boleh One, the sound of it taking off stuck in my head for weeks after, like a musical earworm.
“Rockets don’t actually go ‘woosh’ or ‘pssh’ as they launch. It’s actually more like cracking thunder, you could hear the sound bouncing off the nearby hills,” he recalled.
Tan's interest in aerospace was met with skepticism from his family at first, he recalled.
“I’d known a couple of family friends who had also done the same field, but they ended up in careers unrelated to their studies, and generally, if you take this field, there aren’t many related jobs in Malaysia,” he said.
Arriving in America in 2008 was a culture shock at first for Tan, especially when he discovered that aerospace studies was a field one could pursue with the hope of eventually pursuing a career in.
“That influenced my thinking,” he said.
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When he began studying for his master's degree in 2011, he joined an amateur rocketry club at Georgia Institute of Technology called the Ramblin’ Rocket Club and got hooked.
In the same year, he embarked on a personal project dubbed Boleh Rockets.
"Boleh" is Malay for can, and often evokes the can-do spirit in the context of Malaysia.
To date, Tan has built three Boleh rockets in the US and launched them multiple times. He was involved in the launch of a Low Altitude Demonstrator in Perak last December, a project spearheaded by Singapore-based launcher start-up Equatorial Space Systems (ESS).
Currently an assistant professor heading the Aerospace Systems and Aerodynamics Research Lab at Taiwan's National Yang Ming Chiao Tung University, Tan has another Boleh rocket in the pipeline - a Boleh Three model which he wanted to experiment getting off the ground with electrical ducted fans, instead of rocket fuel.
SUPPORTIVE ROCKETRY ECOSYSTEM IN THE US
At its basic, an amateur rocket consists of an outer tube or rocket body to house the motor, which comprises a metal tube or casing and the propellant.
And according to Tan, basic models could be bought quite cheaply from a hobby shop or chain stores like Walmart in the US.
Beginners could start off by enjoying small, fun models, and as they moved on to more sophisticated ones, rocketry became more difficult and at times, lonely, Tan told CNA.
Despite the supportive rocketry ecosystem in the US, the hobby could also get difficult for hobbyists and enthusiasts, especially for those trying to chase their amateur rocketry qualifications. This is due to cost of materials and the stringent qualification criteria, he said.
“But we also feel that a rocket lifting into the sky is a direct metaphor for willpower and resolve, because the rocket punches through the air on raw engine power. It isn’t graceful or compromising with the sky, like an airplane,” Tan mused.
“I think each launch event, in a way, is us physically manifesting our subconscious resolve to break through challenges. And that’s why we’re addicted to it,” he added.
In the US, amateur rocketeers can obtain three levels of certification through national organisations to progressively fly more powerful rockets.
The motors of amateur rockets are classed by alphabets, with A to D levels bearing cardboard or plastic casing and H onwards being high-power rockets. The further along, the more pushing force it has and the longer the motor burns.
“So the holy grail of high-power rocketry is from alphabets M to O and beyond, which are under Level Three and are enough to push all the way to the edge of space,” Tan explained.
One reason basic rocketry and amateur rocketry were so accessible to the public in the US, he said, was the presence of an entire supporting ecosystem to encourage children and adults alike to pursue amateur rocketry.
There are amateur clubs and national organisations with local chapters in each state.
“Meanwhile, research into aerospace studies is well-funded, because you have the United States’ federal government, the corporations putting in money. Not to mention generous involvement from academia, and assistance from private makerspaces and workshops,” Tan added.
BOLEH ROCKETS LIFTS OFF
Tan's Boleh One was launched in 2011 for him to obtain his Level One certification in high-power rocketry.
“For this qualification, I decided to build a model which was taller than I am, with excess capacity so I could put in a more powerful motor down the road,” he said.
The significance of the successful launch began to sink in after he shared photos and videos of the launch.
“Friends in Malaysia and other countries were excited by Boleh One’s launch,” he recalled.
Other rockets soon followed, such as Boleh Mini, a smaller rocket with a powerful engine that nearly broke the sound barrier, and Boleh Two for the highest amateur rocket qualification which he took in 2014.
“It was pretty big even by American amateur standards, because it was 5m tall. The whole project cost about US$2,500,” Tan said.
But getting Boleh Two off the ground was also pretty painful, he recalled.
“Both in terms of funding and the physical work, because you had to spend hours bent over, wrapping fibreglass around the cardboard tubes by hand for reinforcement,” he said.
Moreover, due to Boleh Two’s large size, carrying it anywhere, and even to the launch site in Talladega, Alabama, and setting it up was an ordeal.
“Having the first launch attempt scrubbed because the launch rail attachment didn’t fit right was devastating; all that effort and money riding on the success or failure of one minute of flight was nerve-wracking,” he said.
“So when Boleh Two successfully launched and recovered, I remember the sunlight became unusually bright and warm on the drive back. That was weird,” Tan said.
It is not cheap to launch amateur rockets and Tan said it was lucky that his tuition was waived and he also earned a small stipend for university work.
"So if you save a bit on your transport, eating out and other luxuries, funding rocket projects is entirely feasible," he said.
Tan considered his rockets "Malaysian rockets" because they were Malaysian-built and funded.
“That one (Boleh Two) opened up a lot of conversations and opportunities to collaborate, even more than my university transcripts,” he said.
PAST AND FUTURE COLLABORATIONS
Tan’s interest in rocketry has led to interesting collaborations, the latest being Boleh Rockets’ involvement in a Low Altitude Demonstrator test launch at an oil palm estate in Perak last December.
The event was a joint collaboration of ESS, Universiti Teknologi MARA and MTC Engineering Sdn Bhd to demonstrate the efficacy of ESS's hybrid rocket motor that used the start-up's proprietary fuel formula.
Tan provided consulting on the rocket’s aerodynamics and balance, as well as helped with the performance analysis. It was launched to an altitude of 1.2km.
Boleh Rockets currently functions on a non-profit basis, and according to Tan, he has further collaborations down the line. Some are not exactly related to rocketry.
This August, for instance, Tan’s university lab, along with his university’s Aero-Tech lab, also run by another Malaysian academic, will be collaborating with Universiti Sains Malaysia’s High Altitude Balloon Team on a project called “Mission Reconnect 2020”.
The high-altitude balloon mission, which started out with technical objectives, also encompasses a social aspect.
“Aside from testing out a light-weight camera system, the balloon capsule design team primarily comprised tertiary-level students guided by the two labs.
“We tentatively plan to conduct outreach efforts, such as space workshops with Taiwan or Malaysian primary and secondary schools," Tan said. Suggested events included competitions to fly small experiments with the team or art projects to inspire further interest among schoolchildren.
“And the mission name is such to symbolically ‘reverse’ last year’s isolation that COVID-19 inflicted on us,” he added.
Tan recalled when he wanted to study aerospace engineering back then, both he and his family approached the field from a position of unfamiliarity.
There was scepticism and constant corrections along the way, but eventually they reached a point where his family not only stopped questioning, but grew to accept his point of view on his studies.
“As for Boleh Rockets and my current career, their thinking is that ‘Hey, not only might this work, but you might actually have something to contribute in the aerospace field,’” he said with a laugh.
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“So now, an aerospace career is my rice bowl, and the practical and aspirational aspects of a career in aerospace are both realised, their thinking is ‘Why not?’” Tan added.
“In the US, it was an effort advancing my personal rocket. As a professor now, it becomes an effort to create the opportunity for others, including my students, to fly while also continuing to fly myself,” he said.