Officials want Hawaii to be relevant in space again

Glenn Wakai

Vassilis Syrmos

Kanani Souza.

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.

Besides advocating for the caucus, Souza also hopes to make a change in aviation on her own through a bill, which had yet to be introduced as of Friday’s deadline.

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.

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 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.

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.

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