Saturday, November 25, 2006

Once again: Who will be the first Filipino astronaut?

Yes, I probably deserve to be shot for asking this "senseless" question.

And how could I even consider it in the midst of the poverty hobbling this nation; in the face of our never-ending political bickering; in the grip of bloody battles against Muslim and communist terrorists? Aren't these issues more important?

Of course they are.

But doesn't the Filipino deserve a chance to reach for the stars, literally and figuratively? Doesn't he deserve a chance to shine in a historic adventure?

The first Filipino in space will make us proud to be Filipino. Just by riding the US Space Shuttle or a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS), he or she will become the proud symbol of the great and wonderful things our race can accomplish if it set its mind to it.

Japan is the only Asian nation to have consistently sent persons into space and this is courtesy of the Americans. Although Japan has its own space program, its new H-2A heavy lift launch vehicle isn't configured for manned space flight.

Dr. Mamoru Mohri was the first Japanese to travel into space aboard a Space Shuttle. He was a payload specialist on the STS (Space Transport Shuttle) Endeavor.

Mohri's historic trip lasted eight days (Sept. 12-20, 1992). He returned to outer space in February 2000, again as a crewman of the Endeavor.

In December 1997, Dr. Takao Doi became the first Japanese to walk in space. Koichi Wakata, a crewman on the STS Discovery in October 2000, was the first Japanese to visit the ISS.

All three are members of the astronaut corps of the National Space Development Agency of Japan (NASDA), that country's equivalent of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). NASDA has since been renamed JAXA, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

And in September 2006, Malaysia announced it had selected its first two astronauts (or "angkasawan" in Bahasa Malaysia). Dr. Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, an orthopedist, will fly to the ISS on board a Soyuz in September 2007.

He and another astronaut, Dr. Faiz Khaleed, a dentist, were selected after a nationwide search joined by thousands of Malaysians.

Are these feats possible for the Filipino? Of course, they are.

The shrewd Russians might yet win the honor of taking the first Filipino into space, however. But the hefty Russian price tag of US$20 million (P1 billion!) for a round trip to the ISS will make us think again (as did Lance Bass' backers).

Our government however can try to convince the Russians to give us the ride gratis in the name of international friendship and cooperation.

If we go by the history of the US space program our first astronaut will most likely be a civilian, a degree holder in science or engineering, a possessor of special knowledge, a team player and one who is healthy, fit and English-speaking.

It would indeed be appropriate if our first astronaut could be a scientist or a technician. That would send a powerful message to the world that Filipinos aren't simply a race of exportable blue-collar workers.

There is no guarantee our first astronaut will be a he, however. He might be a she since women are about as tough as men are in space.

It would be magnificent to see the Philippine flag on the uniform of our first astronaut as he is presented to the world press. It would be fantastic to see him floating weightless inside the ISS as he goes about his job, and to hear him greet us in Filipino and in our other dialects.

That would be the ultimate high in patriotism. The first Filipino astronaut in space would become a hero and deservedly so since the selection process that chose him was geared toward selecting the best possible.

There should be other Filipino astronauts in future earth orbit or interplanetary flights. They will be real-life heroes that the Filipino nation cannot have enough of.

How does the Philippines stand in space? Quite nobly considering her limited resources.

Although we have one in-orbit satellite, Agila-2, this spacecraft is one of the best Asian communications satellites. It mainly serves the interests of Philippine Long Distance Telephone Co. (PLDT), its owner, but is taking on a steady stream of other Asian customers. Agila-2 has a useful life of 15 years. It carries C-band and Ku-band transponders that transmit voice, Internet, broadcast and data communications. It was launched into orbit by a Chinese rocket in 1997.

In Asia, China, India and Japan are the leading space powers but their space programs will be unable to ferry Filipino astronauts into space this decade. Asians, however, will have a lot to cheer about as China and India prepare to make history in the coming years.

In 2003, China sent its first man into space and is expected to send its second manned mission in 2007. China intends to dominate the New Space Race against the USA.

Its ambitious space exploration program sees its "yuhangyuans" (astronauts) stepping onto the Moon in 2024.

To prepare for this, China is to launch its first Moon Probe in 2007. The "Chang'e 1" probe will record images of the lunar surface, study lunar microwaves, the distribution of usable metals and the thickness of lunar soil for one year.

In 2012, China plans to land a rover or rovers on the Moon surface. From 2017 to 2020, Chinese Moon rovers will return samples of lunar soil to China for scientific and economic study.

There has to be a place for the Philippines in this renewed push into space.

Now what is the Filipino word for astronaut?

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