A focused space program for a developing country

IN A previous piece, I wrote about the reasons why I think a space program will benefit the Philippines. I gave justifications on why a country plagued by pressing problems such as poverty, lack of food security, and the effects of climate change can even begin to think about going into space.

Ever since I wrote that piece, the move to create a national space policy has advanced on several fronts. Several bills have already been submitted to committees of both the House of Representatives and the Senate that push for the creation of a Philippine Space Agency and the formulation of a National Space Development and Utilization Policy.

The latest of these are Senate Bill 1259 filed by Senator Loren Legarda and House Bill 4367 filed by Albay Rep. Joey Salceda. Prior to these, Senator Bam Aquino introduced Senate Bill 1211 in the Senate while Bohol Rep. Erico Aumentado and Zamboanga del Norte Rep. Seth Frederick Jalosjos introduced House Bill 3637 in the Lower House of Congress. Taken together, these bills take us closer toward a legislated Philippine Space Act.

As an advocate of a space program for the Philippines, I wanted to find out what other people thought of the idea. Most of the people I know personally are for it, mostly for the reasons that I, too, am for it. But since I wanted to get a sense of what the general public thought about investing in space, I had to go out of my social media bubble and scoured the comments sections of many online publications.

What I found was that many commenters and people on social media were critical of efforts of the Philippine government to prioritize space program given our many earthly problems. The most common sentiment can be expressed as follows: We have many problems here on the ground ranging from urban gridlocks and poor infrastructure to super typhoons and droughts. Why spend our limited resources on going into space? Why not use government funds on helping hungry farmers instead or investing in better disaster risk reduction and management?

A more scientific survey would help us know the true pulse of the nation on this issue. However, such sentiments, even if they turn out to be of the minority, need to be addressed. Hence, although my response to these criticisms is contained in my previous article, I think it bears repeating here. It also bears repeating because I believe these criticisms can and should be used constructively to formulate a more focused and suitable space policy. We need as many well-intentioned people to be on board for this.

What people who criticize having a space program need to know is that investing in space technology is a cost-effective way to help us solve many of our problems here on the ground. For example, having our own satellites can help us monitor the weather and assess the damages caused by extreme weather conditions better and more cheaply.

The following facts put this into perspective. Our current weather monitoring systems rely on licensing of satellite data sourced from foreign satellite operators. The government spends a total of P3 billion per year on procuring these data. After Typhoon Yolanda, the government had to spend about P56 million to purchase satellite imagery of the area ravaged by the storm.

With the effects of climate change expected to become worse over the coming years, we can expect such storms to become more common and stronger. We, of course, hope for the opposite to happen. But hope is not a good disaster risk reduction and management policy. A better policy would be to invest in technologies that will help us save lives. As I argued, it can also help us save money in the process.

And the claim about saving lives by making investments in space technology is not based on hope. Rather, it is an expectation based on facts. The example of India is instructive. In 1999, a strong cyclone hit the coast of India, leading to the death of more than 10,000 people. When, in 2014, a storm of similar strength was about to hit the same region, early warning systems that utilize space technologies was used to help evacuate millions of residents to safer places. The satellites not only helped in weather forecasting and monitoring, they also helped in communicating to remote areas. When the cyclone passed, 21 lives were lost. The thousands of lives saved is, I believe, more than enough justification for the frugal Indian space program.

I invite the critics of the Philippine Space Act to consider these facts and turn their good intentions into support for a more focused and frugal Philippine space program.

Decierdo is resident astronomer and physicist for The Mind Museum. 

Topics: space program , Philippine Space Agency , National Space Development and Utilization Policy
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