Hawaii Aerospace Industry

Picture of a space walk

By: T. Jeffersonian

Being the most isolated population center on Earth has advantages and disadvantages when it comes to Hawaii’s space and aerospace industries.  Some of our local political and education leaders believe that Hawaii should be ground zero for aerospace development.  Hawaii, especially Hawaii’s Big Island, provides arguably the best location within the United States from which to launch satellites into equatorial orbit.  A launch location in Hawaii is roughly 600 miles farther south than NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.  Rockets can be more efficiently launched from the Hawaii because this state is closest to the equator. 

Why does being close to the equator matter so much when operating rockets?  When a spacecraft is launched into orbit, it should end up spinning around the Earth quickly enough not to be pulled back in by the Earth’s gravity. The huge rockets used in launching a spaceship help escaping Earth’s gravity to happen because the rocket engine creates a huge amount of thrust; but the spin of the Earth itself can help give rockets a big push. 

Anything on the surface of the Earth at the equator is already moving at 1,038 miles per hour – faster than at any other location on the planet. When a rocket is launched from the equator, it is also already moving at 1,038 miles per hour while just sitting on the launch pad.  This is because of Earth’s rotational inertia. As the rocket launches, its thrust is added to Earth’s inertia allowing the rocket use smaller engines and less fuel to escape Earth’s gravity and stay in orbit.  

Research on rockets and innovation of high-tech equipment can be costly and is currently dependent on government grants.  Funding is a big issue for those reaching for the stars, not just to pay for current and future projects but also for the personnel and expertise behind them.  Given the pandemic, some state leaders feel that money should go elsewhere with Governor David Ige being amongst the naysayers.  Governor Ige’s most recent budgets wiped aerospace off the state’s economic wish list.   Along with the removal of aerospace funding from the budget, the state Director for the Office of Aerospace Development has remained unfilled for months. State House lawmakers have also advanced bills that would abolish the office altogether, along with an Aerospace Advisory Committee and a Hawaii Unmanned Aerial Systems Test Site Board. 

Hawaii actually has several aerospace projects going.  Neutron 1 is intended to be Hawaii’s first operating satellite in space.  There is also the ongoing development of a cubesat, a satellite the size of a soda can that costs only $5,000 and be fully ready for flight.  Despite the pandemic and cut funding, the potential for the Hawaiian aerospace business has remained strong and could actually help Hawaii diversify its economy even more.  Aerospace proponents advise the Hawaiian government to attract companies specializing in space launches, drones, and telescopes to invest in Hawaii and create new jobs and businesses here. 

Unfortunately, Hawaii’s tax system and less than friendly business environment supersedes any close-to-the-equator advantages that Hawaii possesses.  Another disadvantage is Hawaii’s isolation.  Everything needed to build, fuel, and operate rockets from Hawaii must be imported.  Taxes and shipping costs plus the huge expenses associated with rockets already, make growing the Hawaii aerospace industry an unattractive option for diversifying Hawaii’s economy for the moment.  These disadvantages do not mean not to try.  Hawaii should try all avenues to make our state a fiscal asset and less reliant on tourism, taxes, and federal government aid.