People@Speed: Dr. Rogel Mari Sese, space cowboy

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Dr Rogel Mari Sese
Dr. Rogel Mari Sese
Program Leader, National SPACE Development Program (NSDP), Department of Science and Technology-Philippine Council for Industry, Energy and Emerging Technology Research and Development (DOST-PCIEERD)
Focal Person, Philippine Space Science Education Program (SSEP), the Department of Science and Technology-Space Education Institute (DOST-SEI)

Do you want to meet a spaceman?

Dr. Rogel Mari Sese isn’t an astronaut. He is one of three Filipino astrophysicists in the country. He is the only one practicing actively—and he does so to lay the groundwork for a Philippine Space Agency (PSA).

Born from a molecular biologist mother, Sese was already mounting slides onto a microscope at age 8. At 11, he was splicing DNA. But biology didn’t appeal to him. As early as 5 or 6, it was already a “forgone conclusion” that he was going to be in the field of space thanks to a book, one of his firsts, on the subject.

Armed with natural smarts, Sese was a self-confessed delinquent high school student. In college, he slept a lot in class. When he was taking his Master’s degree in Physics at the University of the Philippines Diliman, he hated electromagnetic theory.

Regardless of how he talks about himself, however, Sese is far from lazy. As a graduate student, he taught at UP Los Baños in the morning, every day commuting to Quezon City in the afternoon, and going back to Laguna where he lives. He still calls Laguna home, while his work takes him to Taguig and sometimes even as far as Quezon City.

Speed’s journey was the opposite. For the interview, we traveled from South Triangle to the DOST compound in Bicutan. But we were more than excited to make the two-hour trip to talk to the Philippines’ primary expert in space.

Tell us about your work at DOST.

Since December 2011, I have been the focal person of the PSSEP, in charge of overseeing the whole project itself and setting the strategic project directions. The goal of the NSDP is to lay the groundwork or the foundations necessary for the Philippines to have our own Philippine Space Agency.

What would the space agency do?

For the Philippines to progress when it comes to space, we need to have our own space agency and space policy. If you have a policy, you need an agency that would implement the same policy. That’s where the PSA would come in. Parang magiging identity [ito] ng Philippines when it comes to space and any space-related matter. ‘Yung ibang bansa, gusto ng makipag-collaborate sa Philippines when it comes to space pero hindi nila alam kung kanino pupunta.

Why do we need to go to space, so to speak?

At this day and age, space is no longer a luxury. It’s already a necessity. So, if you want to maintain the security and the integrity of a country, you need to use space. Non-negotiable na. One of the reasons why we have the problem with the West Philippine Sea is because we cannot see what’s happening there.

How far behind is the Philippines compared with our neighbors?

In terms of space assets—that is, how many satellites we have in space—sa Southeast Asia, we’re number 7 out of 10. We’re just ahead of Brunei, Cambodia, and Myanmar.

Dati 6th tayo pero nung November 2015 naglaunch ang Laos ng isang geostationary satellite, so na-laos tayo sa Laos. [A geostationary satellite weighs] almost two tons—the size of an SUV—[that they placed] in an orbit 36,000km up. The only space asset that we have is the Diwata satellite, which is a 50kg satellite. Parang isang balikbayan box. And we launched it only up to a 400km altitude, so in terms of space assets, mas mababa tayo, although magkaiba naman kasi ang purpose nun.

Why is our government more supportive of space research now?

I think one of the turning points for the space development program in the Philippines was Typhoon Yolanda. We did an internal study on that: kelan ba ‘yung turning point at bakit biglang nag-ramp up ang development ng space? [Typhoon Yolanda] showed the need for space technology to one, provide an assessment for disaster areas and two, provide communications capability when everything else is down.

You mentioned earlier that other countries want to collaborate with us. Why?

We’re one of the largest markets in SEA. Another thing, let’s say for academic collaborations naman: we have a very dynamic demographics. We have a large population of young people who are capable, who have a good background in English, so it’s a ready pool of people for them.

Which is true in any field. What else do we have going for us?

The Philippines is a very good location for launching rockets, and that is something no other country can take away from us because that’s dictated by geography. There are only two other launch sites equivalent to the Philippines.

What makes our location ideal?

When you launch rockets, usually toward the East ‘yan kasi you take advantage of the rotation of the Earth. Parang binabato ka ng Earth habang umiikot ‘yung Earth. ‘Pag binabato ka, nakakatipid ka kahit papaano ng fuel. [May] additional velocity na nabibigay. The closer you are to the equator, the greater the velocity that’s being imparted. Mas malakas ‘yung hagis sa’yo kumbaga.

We are very close to the equator, and we have the whole Pacific Ocean on the eastern side na walang island na kahit anong tatamaan. These make us a very good launch site. We just need to harness that. In the space program, ‘yun din ang tinitignan naming na medyo long-term, 10 to 15 years down the line. It’s something that we’re going to have.

If we can launch rockets in the future, we could also launch missiles?

Rockets and missiles are essentially the same thing. One is carrying explosives; [the other] is carrying satellites. But the principles are the same. So, if we have that kind of technology, that translates to also having our own missile capabilities na magbe-benefit naman ‘yung defense sector.

But what’s our goal in the foreseeable future?

In the foreseeable future, the goal is to have our own independent access to space na hindi tayo talaga reliant on other countries when we talk about Earth observation, getting satellite images, and having satellite communications.

Again, going back to Yolanda, if everything else on the ground fails, your only option is to use satellites. But then, wala ka naman sarili mong satellite, so we had to lease or we had to ask other satellites.

“At this day and age, space is no longer a luxury. It’s a necessity. So, if you want to maintain the security and the integrity of a country, you need to use space.”

Not many people see the practical side of space science.

We have to show first that it’s beneficial for society. We can show that space can help improve economic growth, food security, transportation, and communications, and alleviate poverty because of economic growth. We need to make people understand that space is beneficial to us as Filipinos. There are lots of practical applications, and it’s something that could address the issues that we are facing now.

That’s true. People think only of exploration in the subject of space.

It boils down to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. We address first ano ‘yung immediate concerns. Most people are not even aware na they use space [tech] when they use their smartphones. When you use Waze or GPS, you’re using space technology. When you use MRIs or CT scans, those are products of space technology. For the Philippines, that’s the challenge: to make people aware na beneficial ang space [science]. It’s not just about sending people to Mars or to the moon.

But people do love to think about going to space.

In a way, okay din naman ‘yun kasi it provides a dream. You don’t teach a person how to build a ship. You teach him how to dream about the ocean. That’s where astronomy and space would come in. It’s one of the most accessible sciences compared with any other field. At an early age, halos lahat ng tao dumadaan sa phase na fascinated sa space, fascinated sa stars. Gusto maging astronaut. Lahat ng bata dumadaan dun hindi lang nanu-nurture. That’s unique in the field of space. It’s not just a hard science. It’s not just a social science. It’s also an inspirational science.

That’s a nice way of putting it. Tell us about your company Regulus Space Tech.

Regulus is a 100 percent Filipino company. We do space development, space research, and space education and outreach, although the real purpose of Regulus naman talaga is to serve as an incubator for a space agency kasi as early as 2013, I foresaw na may need for that.

What are your space education programs?

We have space education programs for elementary and high school. Mga 80 minutes lang parang afterschool class.

How about your outreach programs?

We do space outreach activities. We partner with hotels to do space activities. It’s an unconventional way of doing outreach. In space outreach, you don’t preach to the choir [na] ‘yung kukunin mo lang na audience is ‘yung mga taong interested na. The greater challenge is to get the people na normally hindi naman interested and make them interested.

You do so many things. How do you spend your spare time?

Fly drones. I eat. Sleep. The usual. I cook. For fun, one of my hobbies is bartending.

You know flaretending?

Yes. Kaya hindi ako nagba-bar kasi I know how to make the drinks, and I know how overpriced they are. I have a bar set at home.

It started when I was in Japan. It reached a point na hina-hire na ‘ko for birthday parties. That was around 2008 or 2009 na nagmo-mobile bar ako sa Japan. That’s my fallback career in case I fail as an astrophysicist. I also invented my own drink. It’s called the Hidden Dragon.

A scientist and a bartender?

Before I started bartending, hinelera ko ‘yung drinks and then isa-isa tinikman ko. I’m also careful with the specific gravity of the liquors. It has to be done properly otherwise you can’t do layered shots. Ni-register ko na ‘yung taste ng individual drinks and individual brands of drinks. From then, nakaya ko na mag-recreate ng drink based on memory. Kumbaga, sinisimulate ko muna sa utak ko ‘yung flavors.

That’s how you got bartending down to a science. Are you also into movies and TV shows?

Contrary to popular belief, I don’t even watch Discovery Channel. I don’t watch the likes of Cosmos. Kasi trabaho ko na ‘yun eh, so I watch brainless shows. I haven’t even watched Gravity or Interstellar.

How about sports?

I used to try triathlon but that was when I was still in Japan. Back then, I can swim 3.5km nonstop. I can bike 40km easy.

You’ve been busy.

I used to do gardening. Nasa Japan din ako nun. I even did hydroponics. I was able to grow lettuce in the middle of summer. I even grew lettuce na it didn’t even see the light of day.

What else haven’t you thought of doing?

Ang hirap if you have a wild imagination and at the same time you have the skills to make that happen.

Before everyone else gets all dreamy, what advice can you give anybody who’s interested in entering your field? Are there requirements?

I usually call it the three Ps. First is passion. You need to have the passion for the field. Second, you need to have a plan because being a space scientist does not, cannot, and will not happen overnight, so you need to have a plan on how to achieve your goal. And third, you need to have perseverance. If passion is the one that motivated you to start in the field of space science, perseverance is the one that’s going to motivate you to finish what you have started. Kahit isa lang dun ang mawala, you cannot be successful in the field.

Even if we don’t know anything?

The knowledge will come later. It’s like driving a car from your house to, let’s say, work. Pag nagda-drive ka, hindi mo naman hinihintay na bago ka lumabas eh green light lahat ng stoplight. At some point, titigil ka pero eventually, you’ll still proceed. So, don’t wait to know everything, to have all the things that you need before embarking on this journey. Otherwise, you cannot start talaga.

You learn things along the way. It helps you evolve into a much better and hopefully, much wiser person. At the same time, it also gives you leeway to adapt to the realities of what’s going on.

Interview by Katrina Rivere-Diga and Aritha Zel Zalamea
Photos by Aritha Zel Zalamea
First published in Speed January 2017
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