While the future of the economy and NASA’s activities are uncertain, the space administration’s partnership with Hawaii in a new lunar research park on the Big Island holds much promise. NASA’s reduced budget will not be tapped for the park, but the state should find success in seeking private and government funds to launch the effort as early as next year.
NASA and the state’s Office of Aerospace Development are proposing to use the Big Island’s unique moon- and Mars-like terrain for testing automated and tele-robotic vehicles. Gov. Neil Abercrombie noted that the Big Island was used as a training site for astronauts on the original Apollo moon-landing missions.
The project was announced Wednesday, on the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s commitment to land a man on the moon and return to Earth, and as astronauts were midway through Endeavour’s final flight of the decade-long space shuttle program.
A program to send astronauts back to the moon, known as Constellation, was started in 2005 under the Bush administration. Barack Obama said during his 2008 campaign that he supported the moon goal but has not shown much enthusiasm for it and has trimmed projected spending on it in future years. NASA funds will not be touched for the building of the research park on the Big Island.
"The Congress, the White House and NASA must quickly reach a consensus position on the future of the agency and the future of the United States in space," the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel noted in its annual report last December.
Still, NASA Associate Deputy Administrator Rebecca Keiser said at the signing of a two-year agreement with Hawaii that the kind of "participatory exploration" envisioned at the International Lunar Research Park "is becoming an increasingly important component of the 21st-century space program. … The space frontier is opening in novel and exciting ways."
Hawaii is positioned well to be an integral part in all this, and to grow itself a compatible high-tech industry in the process.
The Obama administration has indicated that NASA should turn to commercial companies for transportation to low-Earth orbit and invest heavily in research in technologies for future deep-space missions. Jim Crisafulli, director of the state aerospace agency, said he supports "NASA’s goal to promote public-private partnerships and multinational alliances to help reduce the cost, enhance the feasibility and accelerate the implementation of future space missions."
Some state tax credits to draw aerospace-related industries may well be needed in the early stages, a worthwhile investment to launch a new sector that could pay off for Hawaii’s economy, educational programs and scientific prestige.
One eventual result of such a move could be the launching of commercial space tourism in Hawaii. Several commercial spaceports are located on the mainland. A bill to provide funds for application of a spaceport license from the Federal Aviation Administration to establish space tourism in Hawaii passed both the state House and Senate this year but died in conference.
As the economy improves, the Lunar Research Park could play a key role in expanding Hawaii’s activities in space research and the commercial dividends.