Esquire (Philippines) - - NOTES & ESSAYS - BY JOHN PA­TRICK AL­LANEGUI

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.


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