Thai space agency a blast for kiwi intern

As well as enlightening him to the world of Thai aeronautics, Mikhael Sayat's internship introduced him to Thai culture, people and food, and numerous new friends in the world of aerospace.
Mikhael (centre) with the team at SOAR

Mikhael (centre) with the team at SOAR

“Thailand has a space agency!?” was my initial surprised reaction shortly followed by “I’M GOING TO THAILAND!” when I found out that I would be interning at the Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency, or GISTDA for short.

For the two months in GISTDA, my supervisor at SOAR Lab was Wasanchai Vongsantivanich who is a renowned satellite developer and key figure in space operations in Thailand.

After reading about his works online, I was nervous to meet him. The first thing he said when we met was, “You only have two months here, so we have to make it fun for you.”

On my second day, Wasanchai took me paragliding with his friends, overlooking the beautiful province of Rayong. On my third day, I was on a boat ride on the coast of Chonburi province. What a first week!

My main project was developing a satellite tracker using a telescope and dome system. The hardware was located in Kamnoetvidya Science Academy School, known as the richest and best high school in Thailand and an hour and a half drive from GISTDA. I was taken to and from the school by my close colleague, Nack, whom I developed the project with.

Mikhael standing beside a dome telescope

Mikhael's main project during his internship was developing a satellite tracker using a telescope and dome system

Graduates from Kamnoetvidya Science Academy School would end up going to Ivy Leagues in USA and after seeing the projects carried out by 16-year-old students at the highly developed campus, I knew why. The complexity of their projects was equivalent to those of engineering honours projects in my university.

My second project involved helping the team develop a sensor module that would track rocket trajectory to map out the air space required for the festival known as Bang Fai.

The Buddhist festival originates from a story where the Rain God wasn’t sending rain to Thailand, so the Toad King used rockets as weaponry to send rain.

The launching of rockets during the Bang Fai festival occurs annually and signifies the start of the wet season.

The festival brought the team and I to Yasothon where the Bang Fai is so rooted in the province’s history that it has many frog memorials and statues to emphasise the importance of the festival.

This was also going to be the first ever rocket launch I had attended.

Mikhael giving a thumbs up beside a homemade rocket

Mikhael checking out one of the rockets at the Bang Fai festival

A total of 12 rockets were launched that day and I was exposed to many teams assembling rockets using gunpowder.

The secret ingredient for the winning team was, surprisingly, condensed milk. Of the 12 rockets that launched, the team that mixed condensed milk with gunpowder reached the highest altitude as measured by our sensor modules.

That festival is so significant in Thailand that it was covered by the news, and I ended up on Thai television and news articles that night. The festival was an inspiring common ground for the meeting of science, religion, and history.

One of the best things about Thailand is that food is sent from the heavens, and at a very cheap price. Because of this, the team would eat lunch and dinner together every day. There are so many restaurants to choose from that in the two months I was there I ate at a different one for each meal.

On weekends, I made it a mission to explore the country as much as I could. This led me to different temples where I immersed myself in the beautiful religion of Buddhism.

Mikhael sitting in a small wooden longboat commonly seen in Thailand

Mikhael taking a boat along the coast of Chonburi Province where he was testing the capabilities of a GPS  module

When the heart-breaking news of needing to return back to New Zealand due to COVID-19 came about, the mood in the office suddenly turned from excited to contemplative.

The team and I were planning to camp on my last weekend before leaving. However, in the words of A. A. Milne, “how lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.” I’ve definitely, without a doubt, made lifelong friends while I was in Thailand.

My close colleague Benz, in reply to my amazement to her photography skills said, “beautiful things don’t ask for attention.”

What were the beautiful things that sought no attention in my internship? It was Wasanchai wearing a Star Trek Command Badge and giving me a Spock Vulcan salute; it was the late night drives from the high school with Nack, listening to 80’s music after a long day’s work; it was receiving a variety of bidets and hand sanitizers as going-away presents amidst the pandemic; it was the euphoric reaction of the team at the drop into the chorus to Earth, Wind & Fire’s “After the love has gone” at 11PM while working on the sensor modules; it was virtual camping with the team halfway across the world; and it was those five seconds laughing with everyone on the table during my send-off party.

Khob Khun Krub (thank you) GISTDA and the Asia New Zealand Foundation for the unforgettable opportunity.

This placement was run in partnership with Asia Internship Programme (AIP)