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PISCES sets sights on new projects


Tribune-Herald staff writer

The Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems is not ready to blast-off just yet. But it is warming its engines.

PISCES, originally part of the University of Hawaii at Hilo, became detached from the education system last July and placed under the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.

With its own board of directors and executive director, the move was seen as a way to expand its role in space research and technology.

The center remains a small operation, with three staff members, and just recently moved into its own office on Aupuni Street.

But the young center remains on track to reach new heights, according to Executive Director Rob Kelso, who highlighted on Thursday a wide range of projects it plans to get involved in, from 3-D printing to using volcanic rock to make concrete.

Kelso, a retired NASA flight director, told the gathering organized by Hui Ka Ua, a nonprofit associated with the university, at the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel that PISCES plans to have its own “robot platform” this summer for its Big Island test sites and has applied for a $6 million NASA grant to fund research on turning basaltic rock into building material and fuel.

In addition, the center hopes to make Hilo a hub for 3-D printing, noting that astronauts will need to learn how to make tools in space, and is also engaging scientists and the aerospace industry on other research aimed at allowing for long-term stays on the moon or Mars.

“When you go to the moon, you can’t go to Ace Hardware,” he said.

So far, PISCES has received a lot of interest across the globe from companies and agencies that want to partner with it on projects, Kelso told the Tribune-Herald.

“It’s more than what we expected this fast,” he said.

“… people say, ‘We want in.’”

The road so far has had its share of potholes.

PISCES staff say it took until March for their positions to be funded and they’ve had some difficulty transferring to their new roles under a different agency.

“We have had to adjust,” said Christian Andersen, test operations manager. “It’s essentially growing pains.”

With Kelso on board, and the widespread interest in partnering with PISCES, they say they remain energized and are moving beyond the initial hiccups.

“It is exhilarating to the point of exhaustion,” said John Hamilton, PISCES’ education and logistics manager.

“He (Kelso) is a great motivator and coach.”

That may not be too surprising, given that Kelso, along with his long career with NASA, has another passion: coaching baseball.

Since joining PISCES, he has also taken a second job as the assistant coach of UH-Hilo’s Vulcan baseball team.

While that may not have been why he took the director position, Kelso admits being able to coach baseball is a plus.

“For me, it was just a great opportunity,” he said, while highlighting the history of space research on the island, which is made of rock similar to that of the moon.

“There is just so much here.”

Kelso said he plans to spend 2.5-3 years with PISCES, helping the center get on its feet and eventually establishing a space research park on the Big Island, which could be two years away.

He also hopes to add a few more positions.

Securing new funding sources is another goal for PISCES.

It is currently working off of a $2.3 million state grant and may receive another $1.4 million from the state Legislature.

“We want to be a state business entity that brings money into the private sector and to us so we don’t have to ask for state money,” Hamilton said.

“We want our salaries to be driven by the projects we do.”

Email Tom Callis at


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