AS The Manila Times’ Easter Sunday editorial pointed out, the launch last week of the country’s first satellite – a diminutive little gadget called Diwata-1 – did not get the attention it deserved here, in spite of the efforts of Philippine Ambassador to the US Jose Cuisia and others to share the good news.
Since about 2010, US space agency NASA has encouraged the development of ‘microsatellites’ —satellites that fit into the ‘very small’ and ‘small’ category (one to 200 kilograms), with the smaller, cheaper devices of the sort that can be developed by students, independent researchers, and governments like the Philippines who have more imagination than resources being given preference for limited launch space. Locally, the Diwata project, which will produce at least two small satellites, is supported by the three-year PHL-Microsat Program initiated in 2014 under the Department of Science and Technology (DOST), with UP-Diliman taking the lead in development.
The satellite, which is expected to stay aloft for 20 months after it is sent into orbit from the International Space Station, is a rather simple affair, carrying four cameras that will provide imaging data of the Philippines twice a day. Some applications Diwata-1 can be used for include gathering land-use data and monitoring weather patterns, with the satellite being managed from a facility in Subic, and later at a new Microsatellite and Research Instructional Facility under construction at UP-Diliman.
I personally found the story of Diwata-1 (its ‘sister ship,’ Diwata-2, is slated for launch sometime in late 2017 or early 2018) encouraging, because it shows that there is at least a small spark of life in the innovation sector here, an area where any effort at all tends to pay significant dividends.
Diwata-1 is hardly an impressive piece of space hardware, not much more complicated than the smartphone most of us own. But the device itself is not the real achievement; the real achievement is in developing a successful research and development program, and increasing the country’s links to the world’s high-end scientific and industrial technology community. The nine young Filipino engineers who designed and built Diwata-1 worked in facilities provided by Tohoku and Hokkaido Universities in Japan. The satellite was carried onboard a Cygnus cargo ship built by Orbital ATK, a private aerospace firm in the US, launched into space by an Atlas V booster rocket (built by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin) from facilities managed by the US government, and will be sent into orbit from the ISS by a Russian using Japanese equipment.
That kind of network has a tremendous potential for knowledge transfer, and a successful endeavor, if the government markets it effectively, could spark greater enthusiasm for education in math, engineering, and other sciences—areas in which Philippine human capital is weak. One of the biggest challenges to developing an industrial base is developing a native capacity to create one; as just one example of how this sort of intellectual deficit can hinder progress, one of the main reasons the ill-starred Bataan Nuclear Plant was never made operational was the lack of qualified people to operate, regulate and help develop policy for nuclear power. Some of that can be overcome by short-term training or outsourcing, but the capability to expand and enhance the technology is retarded by the reliance on outside expertise; this is true whether it’s a technology like nuclear power or anything the country has aspirations of developing further, such as electronics manufacturing, automobile production, or even agriculture.
Starting a “space program,” even on an extremely modest scale, seems like a luxury in a country like the Philippines where so many more ‘down-to-earth’ concerns would seem to be bigger priorities. It would be irresponsible to suggest that the country attempt it on a scale and with the same single-minded resolve as the US and the Soviets did in the 1960s or the Chinese did in the 1990s, but by the same token, the potential value of even a small investment should not be dismissed.
And besides, it’s just plain cool. The list of countries that have built their own functioning spacecraft is pretty short, and the Philippines is now on it. That’s something to be proud of, but more importantly, it opens up a world of opportunities that cannot and should not be ignored.