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Filipinos in space: ‘Suntok sa buwan’?

/ 04:30 AM September 11, 2020

The term “suntok sa buwan” literally means “a punch at the moon” and is a metaphor, more colorful than “moonshot,” for how far-fetched certain ideas are. Aside from expecting President Duterte to resign, other things that have been described with this metaphor include unrequited love (as in the Eraserheads song) and the abolition of political dynasties. Some years back, the thought of the UP Fighting Maroons lifting the UAAP basketball trophy—not won since the fall of the dictator in 1986—might have been dismissed with the same expression, but the same can no longer be said after their impressive display in the past seasons.

But what about Filipinos going to space?

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In 2013, amid much fanfare, AXE, a deodorant brand, announced the search for the first “Filipino astronaut,” and from over 28,000 applicants, Chino Roque, a 22-year-old Crossfit coach, was chosen. What happened to him? After getting much publicity by tapping into “Filipino pride,” the manufacturers of AXE owe the nation an explanation.

Actually, Filipino involvement in space predate the so-called “Axe Apollo Space Academy.” Eduardo San Juan of textbooks fame may not have designed the lunar rover, but he was part of the pioneering age of space engineering, surely followed by many other Filipinos working in various fields. Curiously, Ferdinand Marcos—whose nationalist propaganda would have welcomed the idea of astronomical feats—had a message that made it to the moon with Apollo 11, writing of “the age-old dream of man to cut his bonds to Planet Earth.”

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To date, no Filipino has left our planet, but we have had some presence, however minor, beyond our atmosphere. Since the 1990s, there have been Philippine-owned satellites, and in 2016, Diwata-1—the first satellite built and designed by Filipinos—went into orbit. With the creation of a Philippine Space Agency last year, perhaps we can expect more such milestones.

Understandably, a space program is the least of our priorities, especially in the middle of a pandemic. But I am nonetheless reminded of our space aspirations with the news that Pinoys were the most enthusiastic in signing up for the ‘‘Send Your Name to Mars” program, in which Nasa will etch names in a microchip aboard a future rover to the Red Planet. As of the time of writing, over 2.1 million Filipinos have signed up, representing two-thirds of all entries.

Perhaps the enthusiasm is a mere reflection of our outsized social media presence, as also evidenced by our ability to set global Twitter trends (i.e., #MarcosIsNotAHero). Half-jokingly, some are also suggesting that our disastrous government is driving people away, given that there seems to be more intelligent life on Mars than in Malacañang.

But I think people’s desires to have their names in space reflect a curiosity for what lies beyond our shores that’s long been part of our culture. Today, it may seem unthinkable for Filipinos to venture into unknown lands, but aboard their balangays, our Austronesian forebears embarked in what were likely the first oceanic voyages long before Magellan. While poverty and tyranny have long been a push factor for the Filipino diaspora, I think that, as in Kidlat Tahimik’s “Perfumed Nightmare” (1977), our deep-rooted adventurism also informs people’s desires to work, live, and travel abroad.

Meanwhile, as the historian Dante Ambrosio (2010) brilliantly documented, Filipinos have always looked to the heavens, giving names to constellations—e.g., Balatik for Orion and Moroporo for Pleiades—that they used to navigate the seas, mark the seasons, and link humankind with the universe through stories and legends.

I have faith that the same intrepid spirit and cosmological outlook will eventually propel Filipinos into space. Space tourism, of course, is within reach by the growing number of billionaires in our increasingly unequal society, but if we are to achieve space travel as a nation, we will need to attain escape velocity from the problems that have held us back—from demagoguery and denial of history to disdain for research and dismissal of critical thinking. As Jose Rizal, who articulated our nation’s pathologies while finding hope in our youth, prefaced “El Filibusterismo”: “Such is the way to the stars.”

Which brings me to a scene that someday Filipinos will watch: a touchdown on the lunar surface; one small step for our compatriot, one giant leap for our country. If I don’t live to see that day, please pass on my suggestion as to what the first Filipino on the moon should do when s/he lands: Punch the surface.

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TAGS: Chino Roque, Diwata-1, Filipino in space, moonshot, Philippine Space Agency, Send Your Name to Mars
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