Ask most people what they like about the Big Island of Hawaii, and you'll get responses ranging from enjoying its beaches to exploring its active volcanoes.  Astronomy buffs may highlight the world-class observatories on Mauna Kea or the 'Imiloa Astronomy Center in Hilo.  In fact, the elevation extremes of the island make it the most environmentally diverse place on earth, sporting all but one of the world's terrestrial climate zones, including desert, tropical, temperate, and even tundra.

From an extraterrestrial perspective, this eco-range also means that Hawaii harbors very good planetary analog environments.  The high elevation, dry weather conditions, and lunar regolith-like volcanic deposits make Hawaii an ideal place to practice for missions beyond Earth.  That's why it served as a training ground for Apollo astronauts in the 1960s and why the PISCES (Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems) program has called Hawaii home since 2007 with successful international field campaigns in 2008 and 2010.  Here is a photo showing the alien landscape on the flanks of Mauna Kea near the Saddle Road, where PISCES is located.

I had the honor of being invited to attend the JUSTSAP Symposium on the Big Island recently.  The conference was the 20th annual gathering of JUSTSAP (Japan-U.S. Science, Technology and Space Applications Program) in Hawaii. The group was established in 1990 to explore ways U.S. and Japanese scientists, educators, government officials, and business professions can collaborate on international space exploration.  It has catalyzed and facilitated numerous aerospace activities between the U.S. and Japan from microgravity research to in situ resource utilization (ISRU) through the PISCES program. They may soon be re-named to PISA (Pacific International Space Alliance) as the bilateral partnership expands to include other countries.

With the theme "The Next Giant Leap: Building Sustainable Settlements Beyond Low-Earth Orbit", the main topic of discussion at this year's JUSTSAP Symposium was how to establish a permanent human presence on the Moon, with particular emphasis on establishing a multinational research and development park on the Moon.  JUSTSAP attendees scoped out a roadmap toward launching a sustainable presence on the Moon by 2020 - beginning with the development of prototype analog site in Hawaii via PISCES facilities, followed by precursor robotic missions to the lunar surface, and, finally, a manned outpost.  Project teams formed during the symposium will continue these discussions throughout the coming year.  The end goal for 2011 will be to encourage President Obama to officially launch this multinational venture while attending the APEC Summit in Hawaii next fall.

With Earth's ever-expanding human population putting pressure on its limited resources, it's only a matter of time before we get serious about seeking out new real estate to colonize. I think it's inevitable that one day we'll spread out across the solar system and indeed the galaxy, but in the meantime, the 70% of the planet covered by water is prime for exploration, exploitation, and inhabitation.

I'm proud to announce that I have been selected as a crewmember to the Atlantica I Expedition planned for July 2013.  Spending five days beneath the sea, I'll earn my aquanaut credentials along with a distinguished crew of highly accomplished individuals.  You can read my Atlantica bio here.

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