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This discussion paper seeks to examine the recent development of national space research programmes on the African continent and whether their development is due to political, socio-economic, or scientific considerations. It also briefly outlines the prospects for an African Space Agency. The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project in South Africa is examined as an example of a scientific and political development in space exploration and whether it can truly contribute to building human capital and a knowledge economy is considered.
The beginning of the African Space Age?
Space has long been the domain of established and developed nations – we think of the Americans, the Russians, and more recently, the Chinese. However, developing nations are fast accruing interest and investment in the field of space science. Professor Robert Harding in his book Space Policy in Developing Countries: The Search for Security and Development on the Final Frontier, declares that space has become “the ultimate venue for the growth of national power and socio-economic development among a number of the world’s emergent states.”(2) Indeed, African nations are steadily marking their own space ambitions and gathering the technical expertise in order to achieve these goals. The Nigerian Space Agency (NASRDA) has successfully launched communications satellites and hopes to send a Nigerian into space in 2015. The South Africans have similar astronautic ambitions and plan to be a leading global player in space science by 2030. Even Uganda has its own, if somewhat less conventional, ambitions. The African Space Research Programme is located in its founder Chris Nsamba’s backyard and is run by an army of volunteers. But what the project lacks in professionalism and resources it makes up for in ambition and enthusiasm – and demonstrates the African commitment to space exploration. Furthermore, the first Black flight director at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was Kwatsi Alibaruho, a Ugandan national. Indeed, Uganda’s president has been known to refer to Alibaruho as an example of what Ugandans are capable of achieving.(3)
A space programme is not simply a scientific venture. There is a prevalent political element to any such initiative; the Americans and Russians each tried to better the other during the Space Race of the mid to late twentieth century, and the Chinese are the latest to use space as a showcase for their power. Professor Harding argues that space programmes primarily serve a country’s national interests, such as security and socio-economic development; that they are designed for “the improvement of and even the survival of the state.”(4) The socio-economic benefits of the pursuit of a space programme can also be substantial: a labour force with new skills; careers for students leaving university; and improved infrastructure, investment, and economic growth for the country. Furthermore, for African nations a space programme is primarily about communications but it is also an issue of self-reliance. It is now possible for an African country to have its own satellite for US$ 10 to US$ 15 million.(5) This has practical and technical advantages in terms of monitoring and communications, but there is also an element of national pride involved in having these independent capabilities.
Despite the manifold benefits they present, space programmes in the African context do have their detractors. The main refrain from critics is that Governments are spending enormous figures on exploring projects above the atmosphere, when back down on Earth there is so much the same amount of money could achieve in any given country, in healthcare or education for example. However, this is a common refrain the world over – one that even NASA is frequently the target of from its own financially-squeezed public. In Africa however, in the face of the everyday blight of hunger, disease, and poverty, these critiques rightly carry much more resonance. The population can feel like their real-life concerns are not being heard in the face of lofty political ambitions. The main way to ease such concerns would be to have a channel for public opinion and input into the shaping of priorities for the national space programme. Indeed, the South African National Space Agency (SANSA) has already made a public call for comments regarding their National Space Programme (NSP).(6) Furthermore, the public may be assured that in many ways the political and socio-economic objectives are the same: empowering the nation through creating new skills and careers for the national labour force and new technology and infrastructure for the country.
One small step for the nation or one giant leap for the continent?
For African nations, a space programme is, in essence, a way of demonstrating to the world what its nations are capable of. Depending on the perspective, this may be seen as either patriotic egotism or national ambition. Some tout a pan-African approach to developing a space programme as a method of combining expertise and substantial savings in the national budget. It could also alleviate national rivalries or even facilitate an intra-Africa Space Race. On the other hand, it may be argued that such a large agency will only incur extra bureaucracy and costs, and is unlikely to encourage cooperation.
Nonetheless, in 2010 the African Union (AU) controversially approved a feasibility study for the creation of an African Space Agency. A summit of ministers agreed that it would also draft a common space policy for the 53 member countries taking into account current national initiatives and it would be formulated in collaboration with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa.(7) Some commentators believe that this could create an African rival to NASA. The Sudanese president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, is the latest to call for such an agency. At a meeting of communications ministers in September 2012 he stated that “Africa must have its space agency” and that such an agency “will liberate Africa from the technological domination” of the West.(8)
Peter Martinez, coordinator of South Africa's National Working Group on Space Science and Technology, is cautious about the initiative. He believes it would be more beneficial for a number of African countries to develop their own capabilities first and then these nations could take the lead in creating a pan-African space agency.(9) Martin Sweeting, Director of the United Kingdom’s (UK) Surrey Space Centre and Chief Executive Officer of Surrey Satellite Technology Limited, who trained the Nigerians in satellite technology, holds a similar opinion: “I do not see it benefiting a lot … it will generate an expensive overhead and that might be quite difficult.”(10) He also thinks each country should develop its own capabilities first, but there may be some benefit in having a coordination council – “maybe a body where everybody gets together to talk about what they are doing” – to encourage bilateral and multilateral collaboration.(11) He also believes it necessary that Governments have a long-term plan in order to encourage students to take up a career in the field.
The benefits of space research
“Our own space programme is not an ego trip; it is not meant for lunar missions. It is meant to solve problems at home; problems of agriculture; problems of water resources development; problems of environment, and so on and so forth”– Dr Seidu Mohammed, Director-General NASRDA.(12)
The socio-economic benefits of African space programmes are not to be underestimated. Africa's appetite for technology is huge; it has, for example, more than 600 million mobile phone users – more than the United States or Europe. Due to the generally poor state of infrastructure, advances in communications such as mobile banking and telephonic agricultural information dissemination have been a lifeline for many in their commercial and everyday lives. Indeed, approximately one-tenth of Africa's land mass is covered by mobile internet services.(13) Whereas on other continents space programmes encompass security and defence or planetary exploration, in most cases African nations – for the moment at least – are following a more practical and essential objective: communications.
Nigeria serves as a fine example. Nigeria founded its National Space Research and Development Agency (NASRDA) in 1999 with the intent of developing space technology that would translate into socio-economic benefits for its citizens. Since the launch of its first satellite in 2003, the country has come a long way in satellite technology.(14) It has established NigComSat, an independent company which manages the commercial operations of communications satellites. The company launched NigComSat-1R in December 2011; a hybrid satellite with a 15-year lifespan that has provided improved and cost-effective wireless coverage for Nigerians.(15) The satellite system is also a boon for national monitoring. It can map the wetlands, aid farmers in crop production, monitor desertification, find the optimum location to construct dams, assess the environmental impact of oil drilling and locate oil spills, and track border movements. The NASRDA Director-General, Seidu Mohammed, believes that when NigeriaSat-2 is launched it “will create a data revolution, not only in Nigeria but in the whole of Africa.”(16)
To date, Nigeria has managed to sell about 1,000 of its satellite images and hopes that similar sales will cover the costs of manufacture and operation over the course of each satellite’s lifetime.(17) The Government believes its space policy, combined with recent initiatives in biotechnology and information technology, can make Nigeria a global player in science and technology research. Indeed, there has been political investment at the highest level: the National Space Council is chaired by former Nigerian president, Olusegun Obasanjo, ensuring the initiative has maximum political clout.
Like Nigeria, Ghana also wants to use its Space Science and Technology Centre (GSSTC) to examine natural resource management, climate, agriculture, and national security. The centre currently has only 10 employees but GSSTC hopes to enhance its human capacity by teaming up with the Space Generation Advisory Council branch in Ghana (SGAC-Ghana), which seeks to engage university students and young professionals in collaborations related to space exploration and its applications.(18) In addition, Ghana has promised to use 1% of gross domestic product (GDP) to support research in science and technology and continue joint efforts in space exploration with South Africa.(19)
South Africa easily takes the lead in research and development – the country accounts for 64% of all research undertaken in Africa.(20) As the most technically developed, South Africa’s space agency, SANSA, commendably places a large emphasis on developing employable and transferable skills and ensuring society benefits from technological advancements. Indeed, listed among the SANSA objectives are: “to promote science and public engagement and encourage studies in science, engineering and technology.” It also lists one of its focuses as a desire “to develop scarce and transferable skills and contribute to transforming the country into a knowledge based economy.”(21)
Certainly, South Africa has already demonstrated its scientific knowledge and engineering skills by designing and starting to build the MeerKAT telescope (a world-class radio telescope designed to do ground-breaking science and currently the largest and most sensitive radio telescope in the southern hemisphere) as a precursor to the SKA.(22) MeerKAT is attracting great interest internationally – more than 500 international astronomers and 58 from Africa submitted proposals to collaborate with MeerKAT once it is complete.(23) As the technology and industry interest is already present, arguably only political will is needed to transform this iconic scientific project into something beneficial for South African society. Indeed, because of its technological lead over other countries in this area, one would expect South Africa already to be ahead of the pack in translating space technology into socio-economic benefits. However, David Kaplan, an economist at the University of Cape Town whose speciality is tracking technological change, claims that despite the technological innovations coming from South Africa “the gap between esoteric knowledge and economic applications remains large.”(24)
Example: The SKA project
The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) is an embodiment of arguments for and against the financing of large space programmes. It is an enormous and iconic project and has duly earned the attention of supporters and critics. In one sense it is a way of proving to the world that Africa is capable of hosting large space projects and of alleviating concerns that spending the money in an area such as healthcare would be a better social investment. The Economist has described the SKA as “a good-news story for a continent still struggling to overcome its image as a violent and chronically unstable place.”(25) As such an iconic venture, the South Africans hope that its sheer scale will open up investment avenues that would otherwise remain closed. In this sense, Bernie Fanaroff, Director of South Africa's Square Kilometre Array project, compares it to the Olympic Games in China, or the Football World Cup in South Africa.(26)Focusing on the socio-economic benefits, Fanaroff points to the investment in infrastructure but places an even greater emphasis on the idea that the SKA will create “a significant legacy of skills and be a continuing attraction for young people in Africa to enter careers in science and technology.”(27) Indeed, it is true that in Cape Town (the closest large city to both the MeerKAT and SKA sites in the Northern Cape Province) the Research and Development (R&D) industry has a large presence and this will no doubt be complimented by the SKA. Many tech companies acknowledge their highest growth is in developing countries and Africa is foremost among their investment interests. Furthermore, Fanaroff sees the SKA as a way of changing perceptions that African research is only about food security and health issues. He comments that “It is not only Africa that needs this project but the rest of the world as well.”(28) Overall, the argument of the pro-space science lobby (and SKA advocates) is that money cannot be continuously poured into eradicating poverty and improving health without nurturing a knowledge economy. This would curb reliance on foreign expertise for resolving these issues and also stimulate the local economy.
As with all iconic projects, the SKA is immersed in ideas of national prestige, and politics too plays its part in decision-making. Indeed the South African Government including Naledi Pandor, South Africa's science minister, felt the country had fallen foul of politics in the scientific world when the SKA was finally divided between South Africa on one hand and Australia and New Zealand on the other – the final bidders for the project.(29) In some ways, SKA could be viewed as falling short of being a genuine African effort. Indeed, it is financed by foreign money in addition to African finances, and there is the obvious issue that it is shared with Australia and New Zealand.(30) But despite the setback of shared responsibility SANSA puts on a brave face and remains positive. Being seen as an equally capable host for such a massive project as two developed countries, and with the interest the SKA is receiving from researchers abroad and at home, SANSA certainly has reason to be positive.
A national space programme is, in short, a political pursuit with socio-economic and scientific objectives and benefits. While the sums involved can do a great deal in other aspects of Government policy, the socio-economic returns from a well-run space programme can be substantial. In order to achieve this there are a number of things national administrations should bear in mind when operating their programmes. Spending must be kept in check and be proportionate to the benefits to the citizenry that such a project may yield so that projects do not attract criticism from the public as they currently are doing in Africa. Indeed, with such vast sums at sake, checks must be put in place in order to discourage and identify corruption or embezzlement (SANSA already has a whistleblower channel in place).
Scientists and administrators must produce results and projects from R&D that benefit the population at large while politicians and policy-makers must ensure the transfer of skills and the creation of jobs in the long-term. Providing increased communications access and coverage is a good example of the mutual beneficence of space programmes as it is a publically visible achievement, and improvement in this area is much needed in most African countries, and so new developments in communications would be appreciated by the population. Furthermore, an African Space Institute could certainly help in the task of supporting education and the creation of long-term careers by coordinating university initiatives and introducing students to a career in space technology. Certainly, the emphasis that SANSA places on employable skills and socially beneficial technology is commendable and should be followed by other aspiring space programmes.
The AU’s feasibility study for an African Space Agency must be just that; a fair appraisal of how feasible such a project would be. Indeed, a pan-African agency would be beneficial but only if the individual national agencies were each to be strong contributors and reliable. While exchange and coordination of information and resources would be beneficial, there is no point in incurring extra cost and bureaucracy if the national expertise is not there to be exploited. An international space agency would be an advantage perhaps in helping to cut costs through collaborations on projects but it would hardly be an essential asset in doing so. Nonetheless, one example in practice is the Africa Resource Management Constellation – a memorandum for a joint satellite fleet signed by Algeria, South Africa, and Kenya.
While such projects are good for national pride and morale, Governments must be wary of sidelining their obligations to society in favour of racing to send a bigger, better satellite into orbit before the next country does. Placing politicians on boards of control would give an incentive to produce projects which are publically visible and of national benefit, but at the same time there is a risk this may cause investment in grandiose projects instead of practical programmes adapted to the needs of the country and its budget. Space programmes are an opportunity for the African continent to continue to demonstrate that it has the political and human capital to develop and nurture scientific advancement while simultaneously contributing to global research. However, African nations must first and foremost convince their populations that space programmes are not misplaced or vainglorious projects, but a genuine and worthwhile investment in African citizens and their futures.
Written by Paul Quirke (1)
(1) Contact Paul Quirke through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Africa Watch Unit (firstname.lastname@example.org).
(2) Harding, R.C., 2012. Space policy in developing countries: The search for security and development on the final frontier. Routledge: Oxford.
(3) Cavell, A., ‘African space research: Dreaming of a manned shuttle’, BBC News, 25 August 2011, http://news.bbc.co.uk.
(4) Harding, R.C., 2012. Space Policy in Developing Countries: The Search for Security and Development on the Final Frontier. Routledge: Oxford.
(5) Manson, K., ‘Coming soon: Nigerians in space?’, Global Post, 30 May 2010, http://www.globalpost.com.
(6) SANSA website, http://www.sansa.org.za.
(7) Smith, D., ‘Africa prepares to join the big boys in the space race’, The Observer, 5 September 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk.
(8) Smith, D., ‘Sudanese president calls for African space agency’, The Guardian, 6 September 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk.
(9) Augustine, A.A., ‘Africa considers a continent-wide space agency’, SciDevNet, 20 August 2010, http://www.scidev.net.
(10) ‘Space tech, a veritable tool to solving Africa’s socio-economic problems, says Sweeting’, The Guardian (Nigeria), http://www.guardiannewsngr.com.
(12) Amos, J., ‘Nigeria set to expand its activities in space’, BBC News, 2 March 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk.
(13) ‘Africa Rising’, The Economist, 3 December 2011, http://www.economist.com.
(14) Baker, M., ‘Africa’s journey to space begins on the ground’, BBC News, 10 July 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk.
(16) Amos, J., ‘Nigeria set to expand its activities in space’, BBC News, 2 March 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk.
(17) Manson, K., ‘Coming soon: Nigerians in space?’, 30 May 2010, http://www.globalpost.com.
(18) Baker, M., ‘Africa’s journey to space begins on the ground’, BBC News, 10 July 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk.
(20) Zachary, G.P., ‘Space, South Africa’s New Frontier’, Project Syndicate, 1 June 2012, http://www.project-syndicate.org.
(21) SANSA website, http://www.sansa.org.za.
(22) ‘MeerKAT’, SKA website, http://www.ska.ac.za.
(23) ‘The SKA project’, SKA website, http://www.ska.ac.za.
(24) Zachary, G.P., ‘Space, South Africa’s New Frontier’, Project Syndicate, 1 June 2012, http://www.project-syndicate.org.
(25) ‘Divide and rule’, The Economist, 2 June 2012, http://www.economist.com.
(26) Dickenson, D., ‘Q&A: Bernie Fanaroff on South Africa's bid to host the Square Kilometre Array’, SciDevNet, 2 August 2011, http://www.scidev.net.
(29) ‘Divide and rule’, The Economist, 2 June 2012, http://www.economist.com.
(30) Dickenson, D., ‘Q&A: Bernie Fanaroff on South Africa's bid to host the Square Kilometre Array’, SciDevNet, 2 August 2011, http://www.scidev.net.