Push underway to make Hawaii relevant in space again

By Victoria Budiono,
Published by the Star Advertiser, 22 January 2024

Efforts are underway to reinsert Hawaii as a player in America’s aerospace and outer space industries.

“During (then-Gov. David) Ige’s administration, he got rid of the office of aerospace, which I thought was a huge mistake,” said state Sen. Glenn Wakai (D, Kalihi-Salt Lake-Pearl Harbor).

He introduced Senate Bill 2081 Thursday requiring a partnership with the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism to establish an Aerospace and Aeronautics Development Program.

Wakai wants to make Hawaii relevant again in America’s aerospace efforts under Gov. Josh Green’s administration.

“We really need to chase economic opportunities for diversifying our economy,” Wakai said. “Aerospace is one area where Hawaii can be a global leader.”

Hawaii — especially Hawaii island — played a major role in NASA’s early efforts to train and fly astronauts to the moon.

Then in 1986, Ellison Onizuka of Hawaii island flew aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger when it exploded upon takeoff from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

The educational site, the Astronaut Ellison S. Onizuka Space Center, opened at the airport in 1991, then closed in 2016 during airport renovations.

The airport itself was renamed Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keahole in his honor in 2017.

Now the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation operates the Mars and moon 1,200-square-foot dome station “on a Mars-like site on the Mauna Loa volcano on Hawaii island,” according to the HI-SEAS website.

The “biodome” has served as five four- to 12-month NASA Mars simulation missions and tens of other analog space missions in collaboration with multiple space agencies, companies and organizations worldwide, according to HI-SEAS.

State Rep. Kanani Souza (R, Kapolei-Makakilo) chairs the new bipartisan Aviation and Space Caucus established Jan. 8. She introduced a bill Friday to reopen the Ellison Onizuka Space Center at the Kona airport.

“We’ve got to revamp and reengage and re-create that space center because having it shut down doesn’t allow for everyone to learn about Ellison Onizuka, our space history and Hawaii’s role in that,” Souza said.

The caucus includes 10 Democrats — three senators and seven representatives.

At the same time, Souza is also completing her master’s in air and space law at the University of Mississippi School of Law.

The other bill Souza introduced on behalf of the caucus focuses on education and provides a foundation for students who want to learn more air and space law, especially since space efforts are just getting restarted in Hawaii.

Like the program at the University of Mississippi, Souza will push for an air and space law program at the University of Hawaii William S. Richardson School of Law.

“My goal is to just really start the conversation,” she said. “I want to really engage the caucus and discuss some of the pressing issues that we should cover in this session.”

Besides advocating for the caucus, Souza also hopes to make a change in aviation on her own through House Bill 2151.

It would allow people without tickets at Hawaii airports to meet airport passengers, perhaps have a meal and boost Hawaii airports’ economies.

“I feel that if Hawaii is not included in this conversation, we’re going to get left behind,” Souza said. “If we’re going to have a role in this space economy, we need to start providing opportunities to really get our infrastructure in place and try to be a player in the game.”

Vassilis Syrmos, vice president for research and innovation at the University of Hawaii, said interest that the Legislature has for aerospace, space and aviation is “a great idea in every way.”

UH is already taking steps to become the state’s largest public academic institution in partnership with Virginia-based group Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance to further research and develop satellite-­based technologies.

UH is also beginning to establish a space engineering and instrument development center at the UH Institute for Astronomy’s facilities at UH Hilo, after receiving $2 million in state funds in 2023, which are scheduled to be refunded annually.

Syrmos hopes that with continuous support from the Legislature, UH students can graduate and find “highly paid, highly­ skilled, highly technical jobs” in the islands.

“It is extremely difficult to recruit individuals from the mainland,” he said. “If we can grow and educate our local talent, then it will be a win-win situation, both for the astronomy industry and for our students.”

Because Hawaii sits in the middle of the Pacific, the islands have “become the most important area” for national security in the United States, according to Syrmos, with “lots of activity and lots of interest for assets in the space domain.”

At UH, Syrmos said other space industry programs include the Hawaii Space Flight Laboratory and the Maui Institute for Astronomy’s Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope.

UH said other space and aerospace programs include the Mauna Kea Science Reserve on Hawaii island, Air Force Maui Optical and Supercomputing site on Maui, UH’s Institute for Astronomy and the Hawaii Institute of Geophysics and Planetology on Oahu and the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai.

Wakai agreed that Hawaii is “perfectly” positioned geographically and is ripe for further expansion in the space industry.

His bill, SB 2081, focuses on leveraging Hawaii’s physical position as the state closest to the equator to launch satellites.

“We have 20,000 satellites that need to be sent into orbit to satisfy your and my need for Netflix, ordering stuff on Amazon and do other things that we do on our phone,” Wakai said. “So there’s a huge demand for satellites in Hawaii.”

“I think the military is going to be supportive, the College of Engineering at the University of Hawaii is supportive, the DBEDT is supportive and anybody who’s a fan of diversification of the economy should be supportive,” he said.

He said the biggest problem with Hawaii is that “we’re not willing to take risks.”

“Oftentimes, when it comes to economic development, we only cry about the price of paradise,” Wakai said. “Stop crying and start doing.”

Both Wakai and Souza said expanding Hawaii’s space industry will provide good-paying jobs for younger workers, keep locals home and diversify the economy.

Souza hopes that her Aviation and Space Caucus will help provide “a catalyst to increase the number of jobs in Hawaii relative to technology and space and provide opportunities for our residents to thrive in the space economy.”

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