Ever since cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to jet off into outer space in 1961, space exploration has been the domain of world superpowers such as the United States and Russia; developed countries which can afford to spend millions on what most Africans regard as an unnecessary extravagance.
On a continent ravaged by poverty, wars and famine, space exploration is understandably something that most people from this continent aren’t particularly interested in.
Present the proposition to the average African citizen, and they will most likely tell you in no uncertain terms that it’s a waste of time and money. Why should we focus our attention on that lifeless expanse of blackness up there when we can’t even get our ducks in a row down here?
But space exploration has far more value than its glittery surface suggests. Without it, we wouldn’t have satellites, and without satellites, we wouldn’t have mobile phones, satellite television, GPS or weather predictions. Apart from unlocking the secrets of our universe, the intensive research involved has given us the CAT scan, cutting-edge water purification techniques and efficient solar energy technology, amongst a long list of other innovations.
Established in 2009, the Foundation for Space Development South Africa (FSDSA) is one of the few organisations promoting the development of space science on the continent, believing that it has benefits far beyond just exploring the cosmos.
“Space exploration is both inspirational and a future reality. We believe that by using the inspirational element of space, we are able to encourage more children to study maths and science, which will benefit our continent as a whole, not just the space sector,” says the foundation’s CEO, aeronautical engineer Jonathan Weltman.
The foundation was established in 2009 in Cape Town, to raise awareness of space-related events, conduct outreach programmes and promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education.
The South African National Space Agency was being formulated at the time, while Cape Town was about to host the International Astronautical Congress, so the foundation was also a vehicle for communicating with the public.
Since then, FDASA has been spreading a message that outer space isn’t just a waste of space, operating in the face of numerous critics who say it is.
Reaching for the Moon
One of the foundation’s biggest and most important projects is the Africa2Moon Mission, which aims to send an African probe to the moon by as soon as 2025. The idea is to energize the youth of South Africa and boldly take the continent where it has never gone before.
Weltman concedes that most people still regard an African nation going to the moon as a remote prospect.
However, Africa2Moon has the backing of a number of South African universities and the South African Space Agency among others. Funds have been rolling in via an online donation page over the last month and the target is to reach $150,000 to ensure that the first phase goes ahead.
If successful, this initial cash will be used to develop a full lunar program as well as undertake an associated feasibility study. Outreach and public participation events to garner publicity and create engagement will also be arranged. After this, suggestions from the scientific community around the world will be considered, as to what experiments the probe should be designed to carry out.
For example, should it orbit the moon or should it take the shape of a vehicle that can land on the surface and take samples?
“Our research must fit in with the rest of the world in terms of making a contribution of getting a better understanding of the moon and the needs that the global community has,” Weltman says.
Education comes first
While the ultimate goal is to follow the likes of America, Russia India and China in getting up close to the lunar landscape, it’s the journey to that point that most interests Weltman and the FSDSA, given their intense focus on education.
Weltman wants the entire process to take a long time rather than pushing to simply get to the moon as quickly as possible.
“I would like to see this all take at least a decade. This gives us time to promote it and to get children interested in the fact that they could be a part of Africa’s first ever mission to the moon,” he says.
Studies have shown that countries like South Africa lag behind those in Europe and Asia in terms of the number of higher education graduates and PhD students they produce. One in nine African graduates also leave the continent after completing their studies, resulting in a brain drain which robs the country of essential skills.
This has a damaging long-term impact on the continent’s development and economic prospects. But an eye-catching mission to the moon could help reverse these trends, Weltman believes.
“If we can prove that South Africa has a world-leading programme on the cards, then we can attract world-leading brains and we can keep graduates interested in the sciences. If we can get somebody to ask how are they going to get to the moon and somehow get them interested in any of the sciences and engineering, that’s our job done,” Weltman says.
Once the probe is in space, the idea is to beam images of the mission to classrooms around the continent. To increase the effectiveness of this goal, Weltman would again prefer that the route to the moon was not the shortest route possible.
“You can get to the moon in a few days if you take the shortest trajectory. But if we can spend weeks or even months on the actual journey, it all becomes far more educational and long-term when it’s being beamed into classrooms,” he points out.
In another strong token of support for STEM education, FSDSA has pledged to commit 25% of all the funds they raise towards STEM education, through a series of Africa2Moon workshops for educators and students.
Responding to the critics
But how does Weltman respond to the many naysayers who say that Africa has much larger, pressing things to concern itself with than reaching the moon?
“There’s no denying that we have huge problems on our continent that need to be solved. But if we pool everything into providing aid, it’s just a plaster that doesn’t actually fix the problem,” says Weltman.
Instead, Weltman suggests that a more ambitious, integrated strategy that includes space ambitions will prove more fruitful in the long term.
“We have to have education. Education leads to opportunity and opportunity will lead to economic empowerment. Beyond education you have to have skill retention. It’s no good creating an educated group who then migrate to better shores. Then you lose that skillset and you lose those future leaders because you’re not providing for them,” he explains.
He concludes that, in the future, the space sector could create thousands of jobs.
“In terms of practical realities we see a world where human space exploration is likely to become a large employer both in space and here on earth, and we want to see Africa playing a significant role in this industry of the future,” Weltman says.
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