Africa sets its sights on space

Spaced out: Mandla Maseko has landed a seat to fly 103km into space this year, after winning a competition ­organised by a US-based space academy. He will be the first black African in space. (AFP)

Spaced out: Mandla Maseko has landed a seat to fly 103km into space this year, after winning a competition ­organised by a US-based space academy. He will be the first black African in space. (AFP)

‘The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena,” wrote the astronomer Carl Sagan. “Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors, so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.”

Africa has had its fair share of self-important generals and emperors who failed to comprehend the bigger picture. Now the continent is being asked to gaze upward and unite for a common goal: its first mission to the moon.

Organisers of Africa2Moon hope to inspire and educate a new generation of engineers and scientists, as well as shatter prejudices in the rest of the world that often paint this as a hopeless, dependent and scientifically illiterate continent.

“The main reason we chose the moon is that you can walk outside and there it is,” said Jonathan Weltman, manager of the project and chief executive of the Foundation for Space Development.
“Kids across Africa can pull out a telescope and see it.”

The ultimate ambition, which could take a decade, is to put a probe on the lunar surface or in orbit around it, then beam back live pictures via the internet to classrooms all over Africa. It will also be a platform for experiments proposed by scientists.

But Weltman believes the journey is as important as the destination: every year there will be a related project inviting mass participation.

The nonprofit foundation, based in Cape Town, has turned to online crowdfunding and is seeking $150 000 by the end of the month for the first phase, which will involve addressing and recruiting students at universities across Africa. So far it has raised $12 744 since November 19.

It has faced some criticism on social media with sceptics claiming that Africa, still beset by crises such as Ebola and several conflicts, should stay out of the space race.

Weltman responded: “You can feel the ‘Afro-pessimism’ coming out. Some perceptions are true and can’t be denied: we have to eradicate corruption, we have to deal with diseases, we have to eradicate poverty.

“But it doesn’t mean you don’t plan for the future at the same time. If we don’t plan for the future, where will we be? It’s ludicrous to think we shouldn’t continue our research and exploration. If we don’t, we’ll lose more and more of our people until we are 100% reliant on the rest of the world.”

Africa2Moon’s less obvious mission back on Earth is to develop skilled workforces in countries with young populations and high unemployment, and to halt the African brain drain to the United States and Europe.

In some parts of the continent, figures show, more than half of university graduates migrate to Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries.

In a recent blogpost, headed “Doesn’t Africa have bigger priorities than going to the moon?”, Weltman wrote: “I was spurred into writing this post after hearing a seriously bright, well-qualified and well- respected young man, from a very humble and typical rural African upbringing, remark on reading negative comments on stories about Africa2Moon: ‘HOW DARE THEY’.

“By that he meant how dare anyone tell him what he is and is not allowed to aspire to. How dare anyone, who has not walked in his shoes to get where he [is], diminish his achievements by telling him there are more important priorities.”

In fact, Africa already relies on space more than any other continent, Weltman argues, with satellites providing everything from maps and GPS to applications for agriculture, disaster management, healthcare in remote areas and the internet.

“It really is more urgent for us because we don’t have a back-up infrastructure.”

South Africa, Nigeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt have space and satellite programmes.

The lion’s share of the planned Square Kilometre Array, the world’s biggest and most powerful radio telescope, will be spread across South Africa and eight other countries on the continent.

Mandla Maseko, soon to become the first black African in space after winning a competition in 2013, welcomed Africa2Moon.

“It’s a great initiative,” he said. “The world needs space and Africa needs space more than anybody. Other countries are taking part and Africa needs to gear up for the space wars.”

He added: “The Africa2Moon mission will spark something in ­people’s minds: space is accessible to everyone, not just Americans and Russians but Africans too.”

Another space race
Africa2Moon underlines that a second space race is under way. This new wave of space exploration is less overtly ambitious than the US-Russian race to put a man on the moon in the 1960s but it is arguably even more important in the long run.

In recent years China, India and Japan have become ever more sophisticated in their space ­abilities. China has developed a successful manned programme, India has delivered a scientific satellite to Mars on its first attempt, and Japan has turned fiction into fact by testing a long-dreamt-of propulsion system called a solar sail.

Importantly, each of these goals has been born out of the country’s own desires rather than overt rivalry between them.

In the 1960s, the original space race featured the US and Russia competing with each other to place a man on the moon. Although Russia won many of the early rounds – such as first satellite in space, first man in space and first spacewalk – the race ended in July 1969 with American victory.

It cost $25.4-billion (about $150-billion in today’s money) to place Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the dusty lunar surface. Such spending was unsustainable and, with the Russians beaten, American political support for the space programme decreased. With it went a lot of the funding.

The new space powers are still a long way behind the achievements of Russia and the US but they are catching up quickly.

A key difference in the new space race is that the goals are less driven by national rivalry. Although undoubtedly some level of healthy competition plays a part, each country appears to be making choices about what it wants to achieve. And no one is spending a disproportionate amount of money on the effort.

Above and beyond government funding, crowdsourcing websites are showing that members of the public are willing to pay directly for space projects. On December 17, the private Lunar Mission One was successfully funded for development through the Kickstarter website when 7 297 backers pledged £672 447. The target was £600 000.

Africa2Moon hopes to replicate this support, aiming to raise ­R1.65-million (about £92 000) by January 31.

Some commentators wish for a second space race to the moon or Mars, with the US stirred into a spending frenzy by Chinese successes. This could be disastrous. The last thing that the exploration of space needs is another unsustainable injection of cash for a short-lived, grandstanding victory.

Let us hope that this new space race proceeds as it has started: with each country or group of countries developing a sustainable programme to match its individual aims and needs – and with members of the public fully involved, helping to choose those missions. – © Guardian News & Media Ltd, 2015

David Smith is the Guardian’s Africa correspondent and Stuart Clark is an astronomy ­journalist and the author of several books about space

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