Does the Philippines Need a Space Program? by Pecier Decierdo

Disclaimer: This piece was adapted into writing from a lecture given by the author during the January 2016 monthly meeting of the Philippine Astronomical Society held at De La Salle University-Manila. 

Diwata and the PHL-Microsat Program

The first all-Filipino assembled microsatellite will be released into space in April of this year. Given the nickname Diwata-1, the PHL-Microsat-1 is a 50-kg satellite designed by a team of Filipino engineers and scientists under the guidance of experts from Hokkaido University and Tohoku University. Earlier this year, the microsatellite was handed over to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) in preparation for its release from the International Space Station. 

A second satellite, the PHL-Microsat-2, is scheduled to go into space next year. Both microsatellites will be communicating with the Philippine Earth Data Resources Observation (Pedro) Center to be established in Subic, Zambales. (One can imagine a Filipino astronaut of the future saying, "Subic, we have a problem.")

Diwata-1 (PHL-Microsat-1) has a suite of simple instruments that can gather much-needed data about our country from outer space. [Photo credit: Official Gazette]

This historic milestone confronts Filipinos with the question: What do we do next? 

Some are urging the government for an immediate follow through, pointing out that this achievement will mean little if the Philippines does not make a concrete, long-term commitment to invest in a space program soon. Others are questioning the urgency of such space-bound projects and their relevance to a country plagued by more serious, earth-bound problems. 

Why turn to the stars, these critics ask, when there are so many problems to be solved down here, problems like gross economic inequality, corruption, and the ravages of climate change, to name a few? And what does a developing country like the Philippines have to contribute to humanity's knowledge of space, anyway? Aren't the space programs of industrialized countries enough? 

I think these questions deserve considered answers. Let us take a look at some of the criticism to a Philippine space program that are commonly made.

Common criticism of a Philippine space program

Most criticism toward a homegrown space program falls into three broad categories: 

1) Some people point out that other countries' space programs should be enough.

2) Many draw attention to the fact that the Philippines should prioritize more urgent projects that will feed the poor, save lives from disasters, and protect our natural resources.

3) For a country wracked with debt and poverty, others protest that a space program is just too expensive.

Below are brief responses to each:

1) Space is just darn big. Every single eye in the sky, whether turned toward the Earth or out into space, will make a significant contribution. Furthermore, the space programs of industrialized nations have some things to learn from the cheap and lean space programs of developing countries.

2) A space program is a very powerful tool in solving our other urgent concerns such as climate change, food security, and biodiversity loss, to name just a few. A space program will give our country a much-needed new perspective on its problems, both literally and metaphorically.

3) A Philippine space program does not have to be very expensive. In fact, compared to our other expenditures, the cost-to-benefit ratio of a space program can be low. If we do it right, it can even provide us with savings, additional income, and so many other benefits that are hard to quantify.

Let me expound on these points one by one.

There's more than enough space in outer space.

Even developing countries are interested in having space programs. [Illustrated by Visit Office]

The Filipino word for space - kalawakan - is recognition of its sheer, mind-boggling size. Space is so big that it can be astoundingly empty while at the same time filled with an astronomical number of different things. 

There's so much to learn about space and so much of it to be explored that with the decent number of satellites and space probes that are currently out there, every new one that is launched can still open floodgates of new knowledge. Humanity will probably never reach the point of diminishing marginal returns when it comes to the final frontier.

The gap in our cosmic knowledge is not something that bothers only the starry-eyed advocates of pure research; it is a gap that can have disastrous results for our species. As some have pointed out, the non-avian dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago because they did not have a space program. A large asteroid colliding with the Earth is not a matter of 'if', but 'when'. When it happens, we will have a higher chance of survival if all of the Earth's nations can work together to save this planet's inhabitants. 

If humans still don't have an advanced enough space program by the time of the next asteroid impact, we'll have to go the way of the dinosaurs. [Image copyright by Aaron Williams]

There are more down-to-earth reasons for wanting more countries to go into space. Among these is the fact that space science can foster international collaborations that can greatly benefit developing countries. The collaboration between the Philippines and Japan on the PHL-Microsat Program is just one of many examples.

In fact, PHL-Microsat is just part of an even bigger international effort led by Japan to the Asia Microsatellite Consortium (AMC). PHL-Microsat will be part of a fleet that includes microsatellites from Indonesia, Vietnam, and Thailand.

Humanity's permanent foothold in space, the International Space Station (ISS), is a product of an even bigger international collaboration, and it's not just countries that directly participate in this project that benefit from it. The Philippines' first two microsatellites will be released into Low Earth Orbit from the ISS.

Such a scheme provides a cheaper way to send the PHL-Microsatellites into orbit; instead of being launched from the ground using rockets, the Filipino-made microsatellites will be ridesharing with other payload to go to the ISS. From there, they will be released into space using the Japanese Experiment Module, JAXA's contribution to the ISS.

There are more space projects that can benefit from further international collaborations, from cleaning the swarm of space trash orbiting the Earth to monitoring the world's many heritage sites and natural wonders. When it comes to such collaborations, there's truly more than enough space in outer space.

The space program of India provides another example of why it's great for more countries to venture into the final frontier. Back in 2013, India launched the orbiter the Mangalyaan to Mars for just $73 million, arriving at the Red Planet less than 10 months later. Compare this with the price tags for NASA'S MAVEN Orbiter ($671 million) and Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter ($720 million). Many have even pointed out that the Mangalyaan mission costs less than the movie Gravity ($100 million). 

Indian scientists rejoice over the success of their first mission to Mars. [Photo credit: AFP - Getty Images]

Many factors account for why the Indian orbiter is significantly cheaper than its counterparts. For one, India has a relatively large population, and this can contribute to bringing down the cost of even specialized labor. Being supported by an emerging economy, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) also has a stronger incentive to be leaner and more efficient. Given this, the space agencies of industrialized countries have some things to learn from India. 

Indian students celebrate the success of their scientists with a march and some forced Martian puns. [Photo credit: AFP - Getty Images]

More importantly, however, the Indians are able to lower the cost of their space program because they know what other spacefaring countries are doing, and they have found ways to complement instead of replicate their work.

For example, India's Mangalyaan (Sanskrit for Mars craft) cost almost ten times cheaper than its NASA counterparts because its fewer and simpler instruments have been designed to fill in the blind spots left by existing Mars orbiters. Despite this, there's still so much to learn about the Red Planet, and every additional orbiter will provide a whole world's worth of new knowledge. 

A Philippine space program does not have to be bound for another planet, at least not right away. The space programs of countries like Brazil and Algeria, for example, focus on launching satellites that help them with their many needs. 

Despite what Google Earth will have you think, there's still so much we don't know about the surface of our planet, and every additional satellite in the sky will make the picture clearer. Satellites that specialize on monitoring specific aspects of the Philippines can give us data with greater resolution and specificity than those taken by satellites with broader sweep, or satellites that just happened to pass by. 

Satellites that are specifically designed for the needs of the Philippines can also afford fewer, simpler, cheaper, but more relevant equipment on board; equipment, for example, that will provide researchers on the ground with information vital to our fight against the effects of climate change and agricultural productivity. Going into space is not a means of escaping our problems down here. It is a means of attacking them from another angle, and this leads us to my next point.

Taking a celestial perspective on earthly problems

Many problems can be solved more easily if they are taken out of the box and seen from a fresh perspective. In the case of the space program, the box is the Earth itself, and the fresh perspective is from outer space. Adapting to and mitigating the effects of climate change, addressing food security, protecting natural and cultural treasures, and strengthening national security are just a few of our national problems that can be alleviated with the help of a space program. 

Having our very own satellites to gather data for us will allow the country to be better prepared for disasters. [Photo credit: PAG-ASA]

It is not difficult to see why having eyes in the sky can help solving our earthly troubles. Satellites designed to monitor the weather in the Philippines can greatly improve our preparation for super typhoons, storm surges, and flash floods, and when these strike, satellites can help us assess damages and quickly help the victims. For a country in the Pacific Ring of Fire, satellites that monitor faultline activity can provide useful information on which areas are most vulnerable.

Orbiting satellites can also keep an eye on the growth of crops, the health of coral reefs, the state of forests, and the integrity of the national territory. In other words, stuff we send up into space can help save lives down here on the ground.

Simple as it is, Diwata-1 is already a step toward this direction. The 50-kg microsatellite is equipped with a high-precision telescope that can help in assessing the damages from disasters, a wide field camera to complement weather data from the ground, and instrument that can monitor changes in vegetation and the health of our seas, and another camera to locate the targets of the other instruments.

In the long run, Filipino-made satellites designed for our specific needs will surpass the capabilities of our first microsatellites. They can also do it more easily and cheaply than earth-bound methods, which brings me to my third and final point.

The benefits of going into space are astronomical

The list of benefits provided by a space program, both the direct ones and the spin-offs, can fill an entire book. And it will not be a thin book, either. To mention just a few, the space programs of industrial nations gave us non-stick frying pans, enriched baby food, fogless goggles, air quality monitoring, flat-panel TV, scratch-resistant lenses, and the sports bra design. 

Just a few NASA spinoffs many of us benefit from every day. [Photo taken from NASA's Space Educator's Handbook]

While the promise of spin-offs is great, the Philippines has pressing problems that cannot wait for the happy accidents of celestial serendipity. But one need not wait because, as mentioned above, an appropriate space program will provide benefits that are direct and immediate.

One of the most common criticisms levied against space programs is that they are too expensive. Such criticism is greatly weakened by the fact that even NASA, which was given a budget of $18.4 billion in 2015, only costs a mere 0.5% of the US federal budget.

This 0.5% gave the world Dawn, a spaceship flying into the curious worlds of the asteroid belt riding on a beam of plasma. It gave humanity the Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter discovery that there is liquid water on present-day Mars. It showed us breath-taking views of space, from the tantalizing photos of the frozen surfaces of Pluto and Charon to the kaleidoscopic images of deep space taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. A brief look at these achievements will convince all but the most incurious that every cent spent on NASA was worth it. 

Such criticisms are made even weaker when applied to the space programs of countries like India (a budget of $1 billion), Brazil ($125 million), or Iran ($100 million). An even more relevant example would be Nigeria, which has a space program that costs around $93 million. That's close to 10% of the entire DOST budget for the year 2016. 

Nigerian scientists working on the NigeraSat-X, one of the products of the Nigerian space program. [Photo credit: Nigerian Television Authority]

With that budget, Nigeria has launched its own satellite, the NigComSat-1, into space. NigComSat provides reliable Internet connection to many parts of Nigeria including even the rural areas. (This might help explain the ease with which Nigerian "princes" ask for overseas financial help via e-mail).

The rocket carrying the NigComSat-1 preparing for launch. [Photo credit: Nigerian Television Authority]

A Philippine space program can be even cheaper. The PHL-Microsat Program has a three-year budet of $19 million (P840 million). Of this, the Filipino taxpayer will shoulder $7.3 million (P325 million). That's already about half the cost of the entire space programs of Mexico, South Africa, and Israel (around $15 million each).

Because it is relatively inexpensive, important data gathered through the PHL-Microsat program can even help the Philippine government save money that would be otherwise spent on buying data from foreign satellites. A full-fledged Philippine satellite program can provide even more savings and even the possibility of earning. In other words, a lean but practical Philippine space program is a good investment.

Investing in space can also translate to lots of jobs, many of them technical. This can stimulate the economy in surprising and very positive ways. One study has found that for every employee a space program hires, approximately 4 more are hired in order to support that employee. The benefits of a domestic space program will ripple across all of society.

 A space for our dreams

In the end, however, the most important benefit of a Philippine space program is something no economic metric can fully capture. It is the ability of a space program to inspire a nation to dream of its future.

Imagine a Philippines with a space program. In that Philippines, imagine a high school science teacher excitedly discussing with his class their field trip to the rocket-testing facility from the previous week. The teacher's excitement inspires his students to learn more math and science. One of his students, the top of her class, is so inspired she decides then and there to take up engineering when she gets to college. Like the engineers she saw at the facility last week, she hopes that one day she can also make things that go boom as they lance into the sky, a sky that cannot serve as a limit to her dreams.

Now imagine a hardworking father earning minimum wage, thinking about where his taxes go. He looks at his daughter, an astronaut currently commanding her first flight in space. Seeing her pre-flight photo makes him smile. It reminds him that some of his taxes went into fueling his daughter's dreams, from the scholarship that supported her at technical school to the propellant that pushed her to the sky. It made him feel unbelievably proud watching her soar. The view from up there must be spectacular, he imagines.

[Image copyright: Paolo Pamintuan, Los Angeles Times]

Thinking about it makes him wish so badly that he was there with her. But no matter, tonight he'll wave up to her when her spacecraft passes above, just like all the little kids around the country dreaming of one day becoming an astronaut. Their waves won't be seen, of course, but that is not the point. The point is that every Filipino who looks up into the night sky from then on will look up knowing that up there are three more stars, and one more sun. 

A Philippines with a space program will be a nation of dreamers. Better yet, it will be a nation of doers; a nation that strives toward a common goal and works hard to have this goal fulfilled. It is a nation fueled in equal measure by rocket propellant and skyrocketing innovation. It is a nation not of victims but of healers and problem-solvers. It is a nation that we should start making now.

If this generation decides to begin venturing into space, which I really think we should, then it would be our way of saying to future generations, "We hope you are soaring high above the limits of the sky and loving the view from there, and we badly wish we were there to experience it with you."

Want to learn more about space and astronomy? The author of the article, Pecier Decierdo, hosts a regular Awesome Astronomy program on Sundays at The Mind Museum, 5:00 PM. He also leads Astro Camp events. Check out our schedule for this February on The Mind Museum website and plan your visit!


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