FEATURE/'Rocket uncle' keeps Taiwan's space dream alive
By Chung Yu-chen, CNA staff reporter
For Wu Jong-shinn (吳宗信), 2023 was another milestone year in a career that has taken him from humble beginnings to the head of Taiwan's space program.
In October, the Taiwan Space Agency (TASA) director-general oversaw the launch of Triton, the first domestically-built satellite.
While the agency is currently focused on the development of miniaturized "CubeSats," Wu told CNA in a recent interview that the ultimate goal is to produce a payload-carrying orbital rocket.
"We [Taiwan] definitely have the ability to create complex and sophisticated technologies," he said.
Growing up in a rural part of Tainan, where poverty was widespread, Wu's illiterate parents raised a large family through extensive agricultural labor and physically demanding jobs, such as midnight water pumping.
"At that time, milk and rice were scarce, my dinner table often featured cheap sweet potato congee. Nowadays people can't talk enough of sweet potato's health benefits, but I just hate it, no more sweet potato for me," he jokingly told CNA.
Back then, survival was the top priority for Wu.
"People often ask if I had dreamt of building rockets since childhood. How could I [given the circumstances]?"
During Lunar New Year or Mid-Autumn Festival, Wu and his siblings shoot firecrackers up into the sky. "It's quite thrilling, [it] was probably the closest thing to the rocket for me when I was a kid and that was about it," Wu recalled.
Wu, a native Taiwanese Hokkien speaker, experienced a profound sense of inferiority during his early school years, when Mandarin Chinese was the only permitted language under then-Kuomintang (KMT) government.
As a 7-year-old, he said he struggled to understand the teacher's instructions and found himself stumbling when he sought to speak in what was at that time an alien tongue.
"I was woefully far behind before catching up in the second grade," he said.
But Wu soon overcame his initial struggles, going on to earn a master's degree from the Department of Mechanical Engineering at National Taiwan University before securing a scholarship to study for a Ph.D. in aeronautics and astronautics at the University of Michigan in the early 90s.
Upon returning to Taiwan in 1995, he joined the National Space Program Preparatory Office, the forerunner to TASA, before securing a teaching position at the National Chiao Tung University, now National Yang Ming Chiao Tung University.
Wu admitted that witnessing students' joy at the successful launch of a simple test rocket in 2010 was what turned making a domestically designed and produced orbital rocket into a personal mission.
"My will is not firm enough, it's the enthusiasm of the young people that pushed me forward. At that time, we had no money, the government did not support the rocket program, making it very difficult for us [to build a rocket]," Wu said.
Initially using a pushcart as a launch pad, the process was not without challenges, including one test that accidentally set a campus tree on fire.
Wu's perseverance, however, paid off with a 2010 successful test launch of the nation's first hybrid rocket in Syuhai, Pingtung County, southern Taiwan.
In 2012, Wu was appointed the inaugural director of the privately-funded Advanced Rocket Research Center (ARRC), which was established with the aim of developing a domestically designed and manufactured carrier rocket in Taiwan.
During that time, the team initiated crowdfunding to continue research, and Wu's task was to give speeches nationwide, seeking greater visibility for the homemade rocket endeavors and securing additional funding.
The efforts peaked when Wu took the stage at TEDxTaipei in 2015, where he became the first-ever speaker to present in Taiwanese Hokkien.
Themed "Middle-aged uncle's space dream," Wu's speech went viral. "Even kids today call me 'rocket uncle' when they see me in the restaurant."
As several promising students approached graduation, Wu, fueled by the desire to keep the team intact, ventured beyond the campus and ran his own space technology company called "TiSPACE" in 2016, but found himself "knocked down to the ground."
Two years later, Wu parted with his business partners over differences that he declined to get into, saying only that the experience of being outside "academic ivory tower" gave him a taste of how the real world runs.
However, it was also during that time Wu saw the potential of Taiwan's space industry.
Wu gained a better idea of Taiwan's space capabilities after being on the frontline and engaging with many professionals in the fields of mechanics, electronics, chemical engineering, and wireless communication -- every aspect that rocket development requires.
His stubbornness in his pursuit did not go unnoticed, even inspiring a Mando pop band as well as a path leading him to the nation's top space agency.
Based on Wu's character, Taiwanese band Mayday released a hit song called "Tough (頑固)" in 2016. In that same year, Wu Tsung-tsong (吳政忠), now head of Taiwan's National Science and Technology Council, reached out for Wu's opinion of the nation's fledging space development.
In 2021, Wu took on the position as the director general of the Taiwan Space Agency, two months following the passage of an act that facilitates the space-related industries development.
"I guess I just got lucky," Wu said, adding that the manpower and resources were now in place for the nation's rocket development.
On 2023, Oct. 9, Taiwan hit a milestone with the successful launch of its inaugural domestically-produced Triton weather satellite, Wu told reporters at the satellite control center: Taiwan is now aiming to make inroads into the global aerospace supply chain."
Next, TASA seeks to harness Taiwan's semiconductor prowess to establish a comprehensive industrial chain. The goal is to develop orbital rockets capable of deploying Taiwan-made satellites into low-Earth orbit within six to seven years, he announced.
Should Wu need some encouragement, he can look to words penned in tribute to him: "Do you still hold faith in the resolute self residing deep within your heart?"
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