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Space for Human Safety and Security: Space Science Education in the Philippines

(Last of Two Parts)

Promotions chief Ruby Cristobal of the DOST-SEI said to SecurityMatters that their agency has been promoting space science education in the country. Given its limited budget, she said DOST-SEI conducts a Philippine Space Science Education Program (PSSEP) by region which promotes space science and updates science teachers.

Pecier Decierdo of the Philippine Astronomical Society tries to demonstrate how to use the telescope to two participants despite the cloudy skies. (Photo by John Ray Ramos)

The PSSEP is a project that aims to promote space science to the youth. It has been working with space science professionals, astronomical societies, and  groups of astronomy enthusiasts or hobbyists to provide an alternative venue for the youth to learn and be inspired by space science.

DOST-SEI has been working with Dr. Sese, who was tapped to be the focal person of the PSSEP. Prior to working with the institute, Sese has been involved in research, educating students, and updating teachers in his own capacity about space science and technology.

Sese shared, “What we’re doing right now [is] promoting and developing space science education and research and development at the same time.” He also expressed the importance of the PSSEP stating that, “We use space science [astronomy in particular] as a tool to encourage the children or encourage the students to go into stem areas of science and technology, engineering and mathematics.”

He believes that everyone is interested in space science. “Astronomy and space science in general are very accessible fields. Lahat naman ng tao ay dumadaan sa interest sa space science ‘yun nga lang hindi nacu-cultivate. (We all undergo an interest in space science, except that it doesn’t get cultivated.)” So he explained that exposing to students the opportunities in space science can be a tool or avenue to encourage them to enter the field.

He added, “If we have a pool of space science capable professionals, [then] that would release for the development of space science. Ito yung kulang sa atin ngayon. So we have the capability pero kulang lang na medyo i-focus lang sa space science. (This is what we lack now. We have the capability but we lack focus on space science.)” He also stressed that with space science capability, the country would benefit in terms of environment, agriculture, disaster monitoring, and also in national security.

In comparison with our neighboring countries, the Philippines lags behind not just in terms of space science education but in space science in general, “because we don’t have our own space agency to develop a cohesive plan or cohesive program for space science development,” disclosed Sese.

Cristobal, on the other hand, added, “There has to be one space agency where all these expertise that we will be developing later on would be applied and can be useful.”

A cloudy sky is a gloomy sign for the star party organized at the Freedom Park of University of the Philippines Los Baños. Astronomical telescopes on standby as astronomy enthusiasts wait for the evening sky to clear up. (Photo by John Ray Ramos)

The Need for a Space Agency

Among the Southeast Asian nations, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand have aerospace agencies that handle space science and technology affairs of their respective countries.

For example, Vietnam aims to become a regional leader in space technology and has made a strategy for space technology research starting 2006 up to 2020. It has launched its first telecommunications satellite in 2008 and its second only in May of this year. Its first earth observation satellite is, meanwhile, on its way. The Vietnamese government aims for satellite independence and has recognized the importance of space technology in terms of economy and disaster preparedness.

As far as the country’s space science is concerned, the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical, and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) only has limited astronomical services, which include operating an observatory, planetarium, time keeping, and monitoring of solar radiation.

So Cristobal noted that a space agency would “develop our capacity for space exploration…. not exactly going to the moon but using space technologies for applications that would matter as far as our survival, our national security, and even as far as food and agriculture, and food security are concerned.” She added that a space agency “would put together all the concerns of the Office of Civil Defense, the NDRRMC (National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council), the DENR (Department of Environment and Natural Resources), the NAMRIA (National Mapping and Resource Information Authority), MGB (Mines and Geosciences Bureau) , PAGASA, PHIVOLCS (Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology)…”

It was revealed that the space science application needs of the many government agencies in the country are earth observation and mapping data from satellites in elapsed and real-time. At present, the agencies get their data from foreign satellite service providers for a price. Still, a secured access to satellite data is really a matter of national security.

Cristobal elaborated that a space agency, once legislated and implemented, would not only be a policy-making body but would also provide a structure to formalize the initiatives that would provide space science application needs to our government agencies. Such needs can range from simple handling of satellite data, to establishing earth observation facilities, to launching and managing a satellite in orbit.

But still, Cristobal emphasized that there is a need for a knowledgeable manpower to man a space program. “These things cannot happen unless we have people to later on run all these programs and projects, future institutions and space agency for that matter,” she explained.

Look Above and See the Stars

The benefits of space science and technology will only be obtained if there is a competent workforce or a pool of space science professionals that would provide technological applications for gathering and translating science data into useful information, which can, in turn, be utilized for national policies, security, and survival.

Sese, in fact, agreed, “The larger the pool that we have, the more capable we can be in space science and technology application. It would translate to national development.”

Though a space exploration program or agency is far from the current priorities of the national government, having a space science education is the first step in gearing up for such an expensive investment and endeavor for the Filipino nation.

To which Engineer Ronald Tanco of the Philippine Astronomical Society, and one of the co-organizers of the star party, agreed: “I believe space science education is important to our Filipino youth because it inspires them. Space science continues to fascinate all of us and makes us wonder ‘What is out there?’ ‘How did it happen?’ These questions spark our minds to seek out more and to understand more… It brings out the little scientist in each one of us.”

A drizzle cut the star party short in UPLB. The cloudy skies that night seemed like a metaphor to the current state of space science in the country—bleak and blurry. But moments later, the drizzle stopped and the star-filled sky revealed itself, and of a flicker of hope for our space science. So will the concerted efforts of DOST-SEI and astronomy enthusiasts and groups eventually pay off? Perhaps yes, if only the young take time to look above and see the stars.

Astrophotography photo of the star-filled sky of UP Los Baños after the night sky cleared up. Many stars can hardly be seen with the naked eye. (Photo by John Ray Ramos)

(Read First of Two Parts)