ON July 21, 1969, American austronaut Neil Armstrong stepped out onto the lunar surface to a worldwide audience riveted by the historic event to utter his famous words, “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
That mission decided what was known as the Space Race, a rivalry between the US and the USSR to be the first to land a man on the moon, decisively in the Americans’ favour.
Forty-five years later, Africa is still seeking to raise funds to launch its own module into space, with one notable effort stuck at the feasibility stage.
News agency AFP reported that an ambitious project to send an African spacecraft to the moon has raised only $13,000 of an initial target of $150,000, cash meant for studies on whether such a mission would be practical.
With only three weeks to go, the Cape Town-based non-profit Foundation for Space Development which is fronting the Africa2Moon Mission has said it will go ahead even if the internet crowdfunding appeal fails to meet its target.
Group CEO Jonathan Weltman admitted to being stumped over the slow response to fundraising for the “feasible” project, particularly after a similar private British project, Lunar Mission One, last month exceeded its target of close to a million dollars ahead of schedule.
“We get a lot of Afro-pessimism,” he told the agency. “Anything positive, aspirational or leading edge is treated with scepticism. Weltman however said while donors have been slower to the draw, response by the media and within the industry had been “overwhelmingly positive and supportive”.
He could be right about scepticism, with the continent portrayed more as a place of poverty and conflict, as opposed to an incubator of ground-breaking science.
But observers agree there is growing African expertise to support major space projects, even as the continent’s brightest engineers continue to be drawn away to better opportunities abroad.
Signs of this were seen in 2012, when the significant decision was made to build the bulk of the world’s biggest telescope, the many-nation Square Kilometre Array (SKA), in South Africa, with the rest to be located in western Australia.
The SKA would, by peering deeper into the universe, investigate the Big Bang, scour black holes and uncover new frontiers—possibly even life beyond Earth.
But in a continent grappling with poverty, the timings of many of Africa’s space programmes continue to have many critics.
SKA South Africa director Dr Bernie Fanaroff acknowledged running into such doubts, even after the country secured the sought-after project following furious lobbying.
“Very many people who come say, why are you thinking of looking at the stars when Africa has real problems like poverty and diseases which need to be dealt with as a matter of urgency?” Faranoff, who has sent out scientists for external training, said in an interview.
The SKA would have satellite stations in Namibia, Botswana, Kenya, Madagascar, Zambia, Mozambique, Ghana and Mauritius. It’s not fortuitous that South Africa is the host country—it has the most advanced space programme in the region, spanning back to the 1960s when US space agency NASA built a station in Hartebeesthoek near Johannesburg.
The funding crunch is not new to the continent. Zambia’s Edward Nkoloso was in the same period forced to call time on his plan to pip the US and USSR to the moon due to financial constraints. He had hoped to send at least a dozen people, including one girl and two cats, all specially trained, into space, in addition to having one eye on a Martian evangelising mission.
Nkoloso rigorously prepared his “Afronauts” on an abandoned makeshift facility just outside the capital Lusaka, where he simulated zero gravity by rolling programme participants in oil drums down a hill, in addition to using tyre-swings.
His would-be rocket, named D-Kalu 1 for first president Kenneth Kaunda, was a barrel-shaped vessel made of aluminium and copper, with a hoped-for launch date set for Independence Day on October 24, 1964. Organisers turned him down.
The Zambia government distanced itself from his effort, which also saw would-be star Afronaut Matha Mwamba, then 17, fall pregnant and eject from the mission. Nkoloso died in 1989 and was buried with presidential honours.
Uganda’s Idi Amin also attempted astronaut training on an obstacle course made up of old car tyres for use in simulating weightlessness.
But despite the scepticism that such efforts bred, Africa is not short of serious space planning. Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Nigerian and South Africa all have national space agencies, with the latter three all having launched and operating satellites. Internationally, some 60 countries operate satellites.
There are also smaller efforts in a number of African countries such as Ghana, Kenya and Ethiopia, and many other donations-funded advocacy programmes, all hoping to be major players in African space, but short of cash, the continent has had to focus on other more realistic use of the space sciences, such as disaster management.
The African Union has a working group that is finalising a space policy that would then inform its space strategy. When approved by governments, it would be adopted by the 54-member bloc. Last year the team met in Cairo(pdf) in August and was in December 2014 scheduled to meet in Brazzaville.
The plan would result in a pan-African agency, though there have been concerns raised that sovereignty rivalries would get in the way.
Some 45 African countries have signed the Regional African Satellite Communications Organisation convention, while in 2010 the African Physical Society was launched in Dakar, linking astronomers in the continent.
The continent’s diaspora has also agreed to form the African Astronomical Society, with a white paper being in circulation. Africa2Moon Mission also notes that there has been a rise in private space companies on the continent, including some deep-pocketed ones targeted at the entertainment industry.
Globally, it is hoped Africa will contribute to talks on developing global “best practices”, including on a draft International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities, which as expected are dominated by the US, EU and China.
There are direct benefits to space exploration for Africa. In addition to sparking interest in space sciences among the continent’s youth, satellite technology would also link rural areas with much-needed information improving government service provision, monitor natural resources and disasters, while also improving navigation, and even bringing in revenue.
In 2011 for example, Nigeria’s space agency for the first time used its satellites in election monitoring to shed light on excluded voters, while one of its five satellites has commercial designs of selling bandwidth.
While putting a man or cat on the moon may still be years off for Africa, the possibilities for the region are endless, and of great benefit. You can help that effort—including by stumping up some money.
—Additional reporting by AFP