Representatives from NASA, the defense and technology industries, and state government are gathering in Honolulu today in hopes of lighting a booster rocket under Hawaii's small but growing aerospace industry.
There was futuristic talk of helping to colonize Mars and launching private spaceships during a news conference kicking off the Hawaii Aerospace Summit on Monday, but officials insisted it wasn't just pie-in-the-sky dreaming or the unrealistic fantasy of sci-fi geeks and space nerds.
"Hawaii is in a unique position to take off," said Song K. Choi, assistant dean of the University of Hawaii College of Engineering, who said the university is generating hundreds of engineers who would love to step into new aerospace jobs.
Officials also took the opportunity Monday to announce a new agreement between the Hawaii Office of Aerospace Development and its counterpart from Alaska.
Jim Crisafulli, OAD director, and Craig Campbell, president of the Alaska Aerospace Corp., signed an agreement pledging to work together to make the Pacific a focus of aerospace development. Crisafulli and Campbell said the agreement would allow the two states to collaborate on different levels, offering each other their own particular strengths and complementary aerospace niches.
Campbell noted, for example, that Hawaii is ahead in small satellite technology, while Alaska's working launch site on Kodiak island could help the industries of both states better excel in propelling those kinds of satellites into space.
Hawaii has had its eye on space for years through its mountaintop observatories, but the greater aerospace industry hasn't exactly soared.
Hawaii island played host to the training of astronauts in the Apollo lunar missions. And while UH, the U.S. military and a number of companies have conducted aerospace-related research and development here for decades, an attempt to launch space rockets on Hawaii island at Kau in the '80s and early '90s failed to materialize despite assistance from the now-defunct state Office of Space Industry.
"Unfortunately, economics and politics were not aligned," Crisafulli explained.
Renewed interest emerged in 2007 when the state Legislature created today's Office of Aerospace Development to identify and promote aerospace-related opportunities.
A conference much like today's summit was held in 2008. It too was billed as a launching pad for the state's aerospace industry.
But while there has been progress, the recession put up some roadblocks. For example, there was excitement at the time over a proposal by Oklahoma aerospace company Rocketplane Global, which wanted to use Hawaii as a base to take thrill-seeking tourists to the edge of outer space in a rocket-powered jet by 2010. Rocketplane Global went bankrupt in 2010.
State Sen. Will Espero (D, Ewa Beach-Iroquois Point) urged the public to be patient.
"You know the North-South Road (in Kapolei)? It took 10 years to build that. I'm still working on the Leeward bikeway plan," he said.
But Espero added that the economy is improving, and it appears now is the time for the aerospace industry to finally pay off for the state.
"Everything is falling into place," he said. "The stars are aligning."
Other industry officials, speaking at the news conference, also gushed about Hawaii's potential. They said the state is ideally suited for aerospace activities because of its mid-Pacific location, its scientific and engineering expertise, and long-standing ties with the Asia-Pacific community.
In addition, they said, Hawaii's relatively close locale near the equator and its moon- and Mars-like terrain offer a particular advantage.
Today's summit will feature a variety of panel discussions. Topics include space travel and transportation, unmanned flight and robotic technology, aerospace education and training, and related technology that can be used in the exploration of space.
Acting Gov. Shan Tsutsui said that when most people think of Hawaii, they don't think of the stars.
"Rather, they think of the beaches and the sand and the surf," he said. "But this is an opportunity to get them to think of Hawaii in a different way."
One of Hawaii's higher-profile aerospace projects already in existence is PISCES, an international research and education center dedicated to the development of new technologies needed to sustain life on the moon and beyond. It was created in March 2007 as an official center at the University of Hawaii at Hilo and was funded by the Legislature in June 2007.
Credit: Timothy Hurley