Friday, July 17, 2009

Apollo after 40 years and going back to space

I am a member of the generation born during the years of the Apollo space program. Growing up in the 1970s in science class and in science fair projects, we were building model rockets. Dad bought me a telescope when he went to the US for a visit in 1977. The nights in Quezon City then were dark enough to use a telescope to see the rings of Saturn or Jupiter's Red Spot. The in thing in science then was spaceflight. Even the Marcos science establishment fantasized about the country and its New Society being advanced enough to launch its own rockets and put up its own satellite. This was at the height of the Marcos regime. I will discuss the Marcos fantasy of rockets and satellites a bit later. It is not as fantastic as it seems.

In the 1980s manned space flight took a backseat when NASA realized that by sending robotic probes, like Voyager, we can get the same science for less bucks and less chance of people being lost in space. The space shuttle was sent aloft in 1981 or thereabouts. Russia's Mir space station was launched in 1986. In the same year just before the fateful February Snap election, the Challenger blew up like a giant kwitis and an ailing Ferdinand Marcos commented on the disaster. Two weeks later, Marcos was history.

The question that bugs space fans like me (and all the Apollo astronauts) is that how come the US never went back to the Moon? As for the Soviet Union, it realized that it can't keep up with capitalism and settled for a space station program using 1960s Soyuz derivatives (which still works). The USA had the money but the 1980s Reagan years were an age of waiting for the Soviet Union to collapse (which it did). Together with the communist collapse, went the Soviet space program. Its copycat shuttle "Buran" went to space on remote control only once. Russia reincarnated the space program by 1) selling launch time to the Americans and 2) space tourists on Mir.

Today a recession hit America and a resurging Russia are considering going to the Moon on the way to Mars. America needs a spaced out distraction and Russia knows that now it has the cash to finally beat the Americans. America may find the cash, but I don't know whether doing a JFK is enough to boost the morale of jaded Americans. As Obama's "change that matters" begins to sound like "change that hardly mattered"(and Oprah and other talk show hosts begin to eat their words.), Obama may do a JFK to boost his sagging image and send someone to Mars. A politically inclusive and correct publicity stunt is to send a black American who may first set foot on the red planet.

But another Space Race is too expensive for Obama and Medvedev to contemplate alone and since the shuttle will be retired, NASA and the Russian Space Agenc will have to use 3 stage rockets and Russia's dependable Soyuz, once more to send supplies to the International Space Station (whose scientific value is hotly debated). It is likely that the Russians and the Europeans will play a large role in the Mars mission.

And planting the Stars and Stripes or the Russian tricolor would be the most un-PC thing to do on Mars. It is likely that an environmentalist "Earth Flag" will flutter in a Martian dust storm.

Readers may not know it and wags may laugh about it but the Republic of the Philippines has its own space program. It is under DOST direction and focuses on remote sensing and space based research on monitoring the Philippine environment. The Pinoy space dream is to have out own natural resource sensing satellite. However we don't have any launch capability (hey wags! Don't mention "kwitis" from Bocaue!) and thus the program surely has security implications. Who is going to launch our satellite? The Americans?, Russians?, Europeans? Chinese?, Japanese?, Indians?, Pakistanis? or the Dear Leader in Pyongyang?

Of course all these parties will do it for a fee. How much could the fee be? It could be that these parties may demand that we give them some remotely sensed data about our dwindling natural resources. The security issues are very obvious. Our own satellite can track down those pesky Abu Sayaff and zap them with a cruise missile. Marcos even in his dictatorial days realized the advantages of space. And Prez Gloria (who according to PDI's Amando Doronila is the A student in Marcos 101!) I assume realizes the same potentials and advantages.

One thing hindering countrywide research on the Philippine environment is the cost of remotely sensed data. For example, my research project staff inquired how much the cost of the latest image of Quezon City and this was quoted at 1 million pesos! The French and the Americans own the images. Some "freebies" may be obtained from NASA, ESA and the US Navy but these are usually of low resolution. In many cases we have to content ourselves with Google Earth!

Thus DOST has called for space technology applications research proposals in the last two years or so. Two national conferences have been hosted and I attended one. In these conferences it is obvious that a space program will help us protect our resources and our national security. How the Philippines develops its space program is likely to be in cooperation with space nations in the region. Here the Chinese and Russians have shown interest. So far I haven't heard any peep from NASA aside from their call for our scientists to help them put up a aerosol monitoring station in the Philippines. Since this has military applications, the security aspect is real.


Jm Benavidez Estoque said...

Naaawa talaga ako sa bansa natin...
alam mo nyo po... kung talagang susuriin... we already have the everything... talents? meron tayo nyan. Skills? meron din tayo n'yan. Resources? Meron din. ang problema lang ay wala tayong gaanong opportunity na maipamalas at malinang ang mga yon... palibasa nakatuon ang ating mga utak sa iba't ibang bagay na kung tutuusin ay wala namang kabuluhan.

Sa halip na mag-isip para sa bayan, nag-iisip ng magandang fashion. Sa halip na payabungin ang agriculture, nagpapatayo ng mga call centers at subdivisions, sa halip na pausbungin ang sariling kultura ibang kultura ang pinapagyaman. halip na mag-aral na... hayun! nagta-type dito. XP

Dean Jorge Bocobo said...

But things can change quickly enough! Don't forget we do have company called Philcommsat that still (?) operates the Agila Satellite. If it were at all profitable (and allowed under the Constitution) we would have no problem getting the investors to put up all the remote sensing we could use.

Jun Bautista said...


The US might not have the appetite right now to launch an expensive mission to the moon or any other costly space program. The American people might not be as accomodating, even in the name of science, given the many who are suffering from the economic crisis.

But yes, i'm also interested to find out why the US never went back to the moon, technical glitches aside.

Dean Jorge Bocobo said...

I think we "never" went back to the moon only because we learned so much from going there that most of the science talent got all caught up in the resulting applications on earth: namely: miniaturization of appliances and machinery; computers; telecommunications; optics; microelectronics, software,etc, etc. which were all direct beneficiaries of the space program. But now we are in need of invention again! That is why we ARE going to MARS!

Ding G. Gagelonia said...

Prof, given how our pols are in such deep s...t it will be eons before we can hope for political will to drive a space program. But hey, we can and should dream....

Jesusa Bernardo said...

I've seeded this at Newsvine:

Apollo after 40 years and going back to space