Sunday, November 6, 2011

African Space Programme

It’s not often I hear a news item about Uganda that really captivates my imagination, but the other day, while listening to BBC World Service, I heard a broadcast about some engineers at Makarere University, who were building their own operational Space Shuttle, under a jackfruit tree. Was this to be Uganda’s first foray into space?
For those who sneer at the notion, think it a pipe dream, or can never conceive of there ever being any correlation between the Space Age and the Dark Continent, think again. In 1998, Nigeria founded the National Space Research and Development Agency (NASRDA), which plans to send a man to space by 2016, and to the moon by 2030. They’ve already taken the first step: three years ago Nigeria became the second African country, after South Africa, to launch its own satellite into orbit. 
South Africa has already put a man in space. Mark Shuttleworth gained worldwide fame in 2002 when he became the first African in outer-space, and the second of a series of self-financed space tourists to ride aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, paying US$ 20 million for the pleasure. Docked at the International Space Station (ISS), Shuttleworth spent eight days conducting AIDS experiments and research. 

Closer to home, six years ago NASA, the American space agency, recruited its first black flight director, Kwatsi Alibaruho (pictured right), an African-American of Ugandan descent whose parents have now repatriated. Only a few dozen people have ever directed human space-flight missions, and Alibaruho has more than dozen Space Transportation System (STS) numbers to his name. “My responsibility is to lead the team of people in mission control to develop, plan and execute space missions for a Space Shuttle and for the International Space Station,” said Alibaruho. 
He says he caught the 'science bug' very early from watching science fiction programs, and then went on to learn about real science. After graduating from the MIT in 1994, he went directly to NASA. “As I was growing up, going through school and the early phases of my career, I very much did feel like an outsider,” he said in an interview on America’s National Public Radio, “There certainly are a very small number of African-Americans in these highly technical fields, at least that we hear about and that we see.”
This year marked a major milestone in Alibaruho’s career. As a temporary assignment he had undertaken came to an end, NASA suddenly directed the addition of one more Space Shuttle flight to the programme manifest, STS-135, to be flown by the orbiter Atlantis as the last shuttle flight in US history. The space agency had originally planned for STS-134, flown by Endeavour in May, to be it’s final mission, but an issue over payloads forced them to alter their schedules. The senior management of Mission Operations selected Kwatsi Alibaruho as the lead Space Shuttle Flight Director for this historic mission. 
Nyanyozi is the Runyankole word for stargazer, and the nickname I was given for always having my head in the stars. As a child, growing up in Africa, I was blessed with big skies and unmatched visibility, almost every night. Orion, Scorpius, Taurus, were all my playmates. But before long I had moved back to colder climes, and after too many nights spent under cloudy northern skies I soon lost interest. It’s only recently, with power cuts occurring nightly in Kampala, and taking note of the region of fascinating equatorial constellations that arcs across Uganda nightly, possibly the richest in deep space objects anywhere in the celestial sphere, that I began to rekindle my passion for astronomy. 
There’s nothing quite like spending a tranquil evening looking through a telescope at nebulae, planets, and the surface of the Moon. But astronomy’s a lonely hobby, so I Googled to see if there were any other Nyanyozis out there. I was amazed by the veritable meteor shower of websites that turned up. It seems astronomical societies are all the rage in Africa these days. 
In the past few years, individuals and organisations across the continent have started to become organised in this field. Although, as Professor Okeke coordinator of the Astronomical Society of West Africa points out, “The distribution of telescopes world-wide indicates a very high density in the most advanced countries, in sharp contrast to the situation on the African continent. South Africa is the only country in Africa with functional frontline telescopes.”
Indeed, the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT), is the largest single optical telescope in the Southern Hemisphere. South Africa also has a 26-metre radio telescope at the Hartebeesthoek Radio Observatory near Johannesburg. Both are used to conduct fundamental research in astronomy and astrophysics. Next year Nigeria’s 25 meter radio telescope will be operational. 
Closer to home there’s certainly potential for growth. Two years ago, after a conference in Nairobi, the East African Astronomical Society was formed, though it’s not clear what has been achieved since then. Simon Anguma, who teaches astrophysics at Makarere says there are no astronomical facilities in Uganda, and bemoans the “rare occasions the print media bring articles on common astronomical phenomena such as eclipses.” However, he welcomes the government’s recent intervention. “The Uganda National Council for High Education has introduced some elements of astronomy as a physics course for all universities offering physics in Uganda.”
It’s also worthwhile for any budding Nyanyozi out there to know grants of up to 1000 euros to develop astronomy, from the "Developing Astronomy Globally" a cornerstone initiative sponsored by UNESCO and the International Astronomical Union, have been awarded to Uganda, Ethiopia, Gabon, Rwanda, Kenya and Nigeria. Manna from heaven, one could say. There are also countless websites with free star charts to download, and many valuable resources available to the aspiring stargazer online. Even the most promising Nyanyozi has to start somewhere. 

The inspirational value of the space program is probably of far greater importance to education than any input of dollars... A whole generation is growing up which has been attracted to the hard disciplines of science and engineering by the romance of space.” 
With those words, renown science fiction writer and futurist Arthur C. Clarke summed up the true promise of space. Now, it would seem, that promise has been broken. The lead contenders in the space race have all but dropped out of the event. With the shuttles grounded, the International Space Station empty, and no plans for manned space flight anytime soon, what future is there for the space race?
Everyone knows the story of the Tortoise and the Hare. In my mind, Aesop’s fable clearly illustrates the present opportunity for Africa to join the space race. There will be trials and tribulations. Three years ago Troposphere 5, a Congolese two-stage, solid-propellant rocket, carrying a rat named Kavira on board, was launched from a spot near Kinshasa, at a cost of just $50,000. The launch ended in failure. The rocket took off but deviated from its course and was lost. Nevertheless, Jean-Patrice Keka Ohemba Okese, a graduate of the Institut Supérieur des Techniques Appliquées in Kinshasa, is currently working on Troposphere 6, and dreaming the impossible dream. 
So far, it may seem like Uganda’s space ambitions remain under the jackfruit tree. The engineers building Uganda’s first Space Shuttle, Makarere’s African Space Research Programme, claim on their website to be bringing the future closer. They may be right.
In researching this article, I came across a blog by J. N. Nielsen, an American autodidact living in Oregon, who had read the same BBC story as I had heard on the World Service. After reading what engineering student Chris Nsamba, founder of the African Space Research Programme, said about his plans to simulate zero gravity -  “I’ve got a jet engine on order so I’m planning to build a tunnel, put the engine at one end and when I throw a guy in he’ll float in a similar way to how he would in space” - Nielsen was inspired. 
This strikes me as exactly the right attitude,” he wrote, “It has been the custom both in Russia and the US to train their cosmonauts and astronauts extensively, for months or years, before they get a chance to fly. While these procedures can certainly be defended on the grounds of safety, the culture of safety has gone so far as to make the programs risk-averse and therefore there has been a not-so-subtle lowering of sights and tempering of ambition…It is only when astronauts are viewed as truck drivers, and not as heroes, that there will be a space program on the order of magnitude that is necessary to the survival of our species.”
It would appear Africa’s space aspirations are not just a pipe dream. I believe in my lifetime we could easily see an African on the moon, landed there by an African space programme. It just takes one Nyanzozi with a passion for the stars, and the willingness to tackle the hard disciplines of science and engineering, to reach up from the continent and grasp the heavens. One such African, writing on an American weblog devoted to the future of design, sums it up with an epigrammatic prophecy:
Am telling you people, we are going to change the way the world thinks about Africa. we shall go to space and we shall do so many space projects that even NASA has not dreamed of. We are going to unlock the long time kept secrets of space and Astronomy at large…we are coming like a swarm of bees…we are ‘the river that flows up stream’ , we are going to turn what they term as Fiction into reality…WHATEVER MAN CAN IMAGINE, WE CAN DO!

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