Rogel Mari Sese
National Space Promotion, Awareness, and Capabilities Enhancement (SPACE) Development Program
Department of Science and Technology (DOST)
AsianScientist (May. 18, 2017) – The Philipines has a population of about 100 million people, but only three of them are astrophysicists. Dr. Rogel Mari Sese, one of those rare astrophysicists, has been laying the groundwork for the Philippines’ very own space agency.
As the program leader of the National SPACE Development Program (NSDP), Sese is pushing for a policy that would cover all space development projects in the Philippines for the next ten years. Once the agency gets going, it would be the grand conductor of space development in the Philippines at the national level.
Speaking on the sidelines of the Global Space & Technology Convention (GSTC) organized by the Singapore Space & Technology Association, Sese shared with Asian Scientist Magazine his views about how his country can benefit from space applications and technology, and why he thinks space is sexy.
- What is the role of the NSDP?
- How does the Philippines’ space program compare with other Asian countries?
- Why is it important to have a space agency for the Philippines?
- How will the recently approved space development policies tie in with the space agency?
- How would space technology help the public?
- How did you get interested in space?
- What made you decide to return to the Philippines?
Our preliminary work began way back in 2013, but it’s only last year that we started to become more visible to the public. Our work focuses on the long-term, strategic planning for the space program in the Philippines.
To be honest, compared to other countries such as Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam, the Philippines is late in terms of getting into the space program. But, it was also good for us because we could learn from what the other countries did.
We analyzed the policies and programs of various countries not just in ASEAN, but also Japan, US and Europe. From the analyses, we picked those we think can work in the Philippines. This prevented the Philippines from repeating the same mistakes.
This is one of the questions which we started with way back in 2013. Even though we didn’t have a space agency, a lot of the different government units are doing space-related work such as remote sensing for communications. The problem was that there was no cohesive strategy that everyone should follow.
Everyone was doing their own thing. In some cases, because departments don’t talk to each other; it led to duplication of work. So when we did the baseline research in 2013, we found that we needed to have an agency that coordinates the activities.
At the same time, the lack of a space agency makes it very difficult for international partners to work with us. They don’t know who should they approach. By having a space agency, it creates an identity that everyone knows. This is the agency that we should go to when we are talking about space-related activities. It makes everything much easier.
You can’t just have an agency with no direction and that’s where the policies come in. When we were starting, we were thinking which should come first, the agency or the policy? Having a policy without an agency, that’s just paper; having an agency without a policy, that’s a headless chicken. That’s why we were pushing for them together at the same time because they reinforce each other.
The policy is important because it provides the central framework on how the country should act in terms of space development. Once a policy’s there, everyone knows what we are going to do. At the same time, for the benefit of the public, it shows them why we are doing it.
People often ask questions like, “Why do we need to go to space? We have other problems that needs to be solved here,” without realizing that space is actually part of the solution to these problems that we have, problems such as food security, maritime and national security, and environmental monitoring.
Space is not cheap, so we have to make the investments worth it. We want to make sure that any money which is invested in space—whether it’s for research, education, industry or socio-economic development—has significant returns to the country.
In agriculture, for example, you can determine how many sacks of rice we can harvest from a plot from space. But it’s not just that. You can even determine how many days are left before harvest can begin. By having this kind of information at the national level and on a regular basis, food security is addressed. This just one of the immediate practical benefits of space technology.
On the flipside, let’s face it: space is very sexy. Almost everyone has had that phase where they wanted to be an astronaut. Space, compared to other sciences, is not just a technical science, it’s also an inspirational science. It can inspire a whole nation—just look at the Apollo program that inspired the whole of US when they landed on the moon. It has a big inspirational value to the public.
As early as five, I knew my career would be in space; it was a foregone conclusion. My mother was a molecular biologist and botanist who taught me all sorts of things about biology. When I was about eight years old I learnt how to use the microscope and at eleven I learnt how to splice DNA. However, I never got interested in any of that. For me, it was always space.
When I attended high school, physics seemed interesting to me and I decided to go into the field of astrophysics. Back then, however, there was no degree program in astrophysics, so I took the closest program possible—applied physics. I specialized in instrumentation development and design which was very much like building satellites, although everything back then everything had to be done by ourselves. It was very hard.
After graduating, I taught at the university for some time before pursuing a PhD degree at Japan, specializing in computational astrophysics. I finished my PhD in 2009 and went back to the Philippines. It took me two years of deep thinking—I was still living in Japan then—about whether I should go back to the Philippines.
There were lots of things I was considering. Of course, my friends were also saying: “Why go back? Your field is not even existent in the Philippines.”
I said: “Precisely, that’s the reason why I’d go back.”
This article is from a monthly series called Asia’s Scientific Trailblazers. Click here to read other articles in the series.
Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.