IN THE SERVICE OF OUTER SPACE
ONLY A FEW FILIPINOS ARE AWARE THAT THE PHILIPPINES IS ALREADY A SPACE TECHNOLOGY-RELIANT COUNTRY, EQUIPPED WITH TOOLS THAT HOVER ABOVE OUR HEADS AND SHOOT SIGNALS BACK TO THE GROUND TO GENERATE DATA FOR US TO USE.
When I was a kid, somebody told me that the Earth was at the very center of the universe, making us some kind of privileged sort to be a part of it. The universe, as the story went, moved in a manner by which our earthly tethers are separate from those in outer space.
When the New Horizons spacecraft passed what used to be the outermost planet of the solar system, capturing the first and most legit photograph of Pluto yet, I was immediately drawn back to the idea of how special we must be for accomplishing this remarkable feat.
Back on Earth, the implication to the Philippines was indirect, but nevertheless clear: Though we may not be able to afford to do anything as unprecedented as New Horizons in the next century, this country is in dire need of a space policy and a space agency, no matter how special or otherwise we think we truly are.
On that same day, I was anticipating the appearance of Pluto and its ivory terrains from various newswires. I was also sticking to the updates of my astrophysicist of a boss on Facebook, one of which read, “It has taken New Horizons 9.5 years to reach Pluto. It’s THAT far!”
Nine and a half years. A lot can happen in that period. Nine and a half years ago, I was a high school sophomore who cared little about my biology classes and worried more about getting through geometry. I would have never thought that, nine and a half years later, I would be working for the government to help write and push the national space policy and space agency for legislation.
“Ha? Space policy? As in astronomy? Aren’t you supposed to be in sociology?” My friends would say whenever we got to talking about our past lives, if not our daily grind.
Here I was, a 24-year-old guy who initially dwelled in the undercurrents of international relations, but ended up enjoying sociology even more. At one point, I found myself discovering my own niche to pursue a growing passion for creative writing at a time when the government was looking for people to do a nationwide qualitative research for space technology and applications.
For Filipinos, skepticism about space and its importance usually comes in the form of a commonsensical question. What business does the Philippines, a country routinely dealing with its own culture of corruption, natural catastrophes, and territorial disputes have with what is out there in the sky and beyond our atmosphere?
The universe, as we are often told, is as vast as it is poorly understood. We are overwhelmed by its maddening emptiness, equating it with what can only be simplified by religious beliefs, yet we become underwhelmed by how we are affected by it in our day-to-day experiences.
And by this, I do not mean to bring up the troublesome events brought by Mercury in retrograde, nor the fate ushered by planetary alignments, nor the ambition of Filipinos exploring neighboring planets for survivability during an apocalypse. Instead, think about the realm of issues that go beyond spin-off technologies like your smartphone’s GPS and satellite television such as economic growth, national security, and disaster and risk management, among others.
We are living in a time when many of our problems are conveniently seen as superficial, often vented with the need to look for the quickest solutions on the ground. One does not need to look light years ahead to see how using space technologies and having a policy and agency to govern them to help enable solutions that can only be seen from above.
Only a few Filipinos are aware that the Philippines is already a space technology- reliant country, equipped with tools that hover above our heads and shoot signals back to the ground to generate data for us to use. Think of acronyms that do not need to be spelled out: PAGASA, PHIVOLCS, NAMRIA, AFP, etcetera.
Even fewer Filipinos know that in the coming years, the Philippines is set to launch and maintain a number of satellites that will perform communication and Earth observation activities to ensure maritime domain awareness, monitor vital natural resources, and provide secure communication links for the sake of territorial integrity. The problem lies in the absence of a comprehensive space policy and space agency to cover their sustainability and meddle with actual space matters.
“Darling, remember, you are only as good as your data!” One of my mentors in Ateneo would say whenever we would get to overstretch sociological theories in doing social research. I’ve learned this to be true when it comes to space matters and national security, as well. That, in order to protect ourselves as a sovereign state, we must maximize a variety of space-based technologies for surveillance and gather space data for safeguarding our borders, territories, and people.
In a crucial time when Beijing and Manila are contesting disputed seas, it is only fitting to have better means for proper systems on space- data acquisition to secure ourselves from such threats, both internal and external.
As much as we want to keep the external ones at bay, many of them inevitably find their way to our shores. Every year, we are hardpressed to recover from typhoons, leaving bodies to rot and bloat on acres of ravaged land, bringing about agricultural damages, instigating the problem of food security, and demanding the public sector for a different approach for disaster management.
The rampage of a storm, or any disaster for that matter, won’t show us that the light at the end of the tunnel is any brighter than the sun that comes in its aftermath.
Instead, it will only spawn the pressing need to formally establish and align our space-based monitoring capacities that will consolidate and
expedite the practice of space data acquisition and analyses to crucial decision-making processes in times of calamities.
On the surface, these are things that do not make a lot of difference in our existence especially when we have other mouths to feed and precarious MRT rides to survive on a daily basis. This sentiment among Filipinos is widespread; it reiterates how many people see the realm of space and what humanity can do with it through its lack of instantaneous advantages. The difficult part won’t only come from the resistance of the feisty men and women of Congress, but from the general public, as well. Trying to promulgate something that is “out of reach” will naturally be seen by others as a source of estrangement because, as they say, our worldly needs are detached from those in outer space.
But this is not the case; it should never be. Throughout this stint, I have learned how our worldly concerns are as real as what we make out of in outer space; that whatever earthly tethers bound us to the ground, they are as essential as the ones with what we decide to do in the sky. The push for a space policy and space agency for our country is an intricate expression of this relationship.
This contemplation always brings me back to that childhood memory, when somebody told me that the Earth was located at the center of the universe, that we should feel privileged to be in it.
But we know it is not; and we definitely know we are not. As much as we desire to live by that belief, it is difficult not to consider the possibility of being a random speck of dust in the enveloping cosmic darkness; and the things we do and want—food, money, love, and sex—are meaningless in the greater scheme of things, of the universe.
So I thoroughly wonder how many Filipinos will accept the “absurdity” of a space policy and space agency as meaningless shades in a developing country besieged to stand on its own to address its own pitfalls.
I am often asked how I got in this job and why I have chosen to stick with it. Sometimes I think of how the things I do are also just frivolous patterns and become, yet again, meaningless shades in the greater scheme of things: From absorbing the technicalities of astrophysics for public writing, sitting in the same room with surprisingly benevolent bureaucrats, to inputting the voices of stakeholders who actually see the value of what we are fighting for.
In spite of our terrifying position in the universe, these moments force me to see the importance of being self-aware of our circumstances and putting meanings in the things we do, no matter how trivial they are. This way, we do not have to consider the prospect of how ultimately random we are as we try to live another day and strive for a better shot at life.
Fighting for the national space policy and space agency is not tantamount to waging a space race with other nations, as what I have been jokingly accused of a number of times. Like in any other initiative, we always start with what is necessary for us. This is not a Cold War that will send the first Filipinos in outer space to make the next moon landing in the next 50 years.
But I dare say this is an unrelenting time to fight for our place in space because this country has long been forced to fight even colder wars: from destructive typhoons that wreak havoc on our lands, diplomatic feuds for sovereignty over territorial waters that undervalue our space technologies, to the lack of national representation in diplomatic engagements on space matters.
I find it fascinating how my childhood myths of the universe and my current place in the world actually have their bizarre intersections. The next time somebody asks me how I got here and why I still do what I do in a job that stays true to the menial compensation standards of the government, I won’t bring up jokes on how the planets have mysteriously aligned for me or how the universe has conspired against me to seal my fate here. Perhaps I’ll just smile and say how I go about my seemingly frivolous presence in the greater scheme of things, of the universe: there is a purpose to be served here.
SURVIVING AN ERA, ABSTRACT BULLSHIT - OIL, ENCAUSTIC ON CANVAS