One noticeable factor of Africa’s space program is its obvious lack of crewed spaceflight operations. Even though Africa has launched 41 satellites in the past two decades, with plans to launch, even more, it has still been unable to launch a manned spaceflight (a spaceflight is technically any flight above 100 kilometres, according to the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale). The lack of Africans in space means that Africa’s various space programs are unable to get involved in key researches in various areas that could help life on earth and advance research for deep space travel.
The inability to have manned spaceflights is regardless of the fact that many African space agencies have promised to launch astronauts to space. In 2016, the Nigerian National Space Research and Development Agency (NASRDA) through the Minister of Science and Technology at the time, Dr Ogbonnaya Onu announced that it would deliver Nigerian astronauts to space by 2030, but a follow up shows a lack of serious commitment to this pledge as Nigeria is still yet to start the training of astronauts. Egypt also pledged to deliver Africa’s first astronaut to space. The head of the Egyptian Space Agency, Mohamed al-Qousy revealed this to the public in early January 2020. This project seems to still be in the works, though. While African nations are in various stages of establishing space programs that will see the first African launched to space, the closest Africa has come to having a human presence in space was with the launch of Canonical CEO Mark Shuttleworth aboard the Soyuz TM 34 in 2002 as a “space tourist”. In fact, many African nations don’t even have a launch system and depend on foreign rockets to launch satellites into space. Many people blame the issue of Africa’s lack of human space presence on the underdeveloped state of Africa’s various space programs, corruption, and lack of trained professionals.
Africa’s lack of human presence in space, while a tad frustrating to African space agencies, is not for lack of trying. It is in fact very tasking to launch humans into space, and it requires years of research, development, engineering and innovation. It also is extremely expensive. At the moment, most African space agencies do not have the resources to adequately pull this off, particularly with how the funding of space projects has been abysmally low when compared to other space programs globally. The establishment of the African Space Agency could combat this issue, though, as it will present African nations with the opportunity to lessen the individual burden by helping build a collective body with a common goal not unlike the European Space Agency.
One other key issue that presents itself is the lack of qualified professionals. But Africa’s lack of astronauts and other space-related professions is a bit more complex when looked at closely. The space industry in itself is one of the most specialized and exclusive of all fields, and training for those fields are extremely difficult and take years. For example, the NASA astronaut program requires having a master’s degree in a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) course, at least two years of professional experience, intensive physical and anthropometric tests, and of course, an America citizenship, and astronaut pilot applicants are required to have at least a thousand hours of pilot-in-command jet aircraft time.
Evidently, Africa does not have the resources and particularly not the personnel to adequately train proficient professionals in these very exclusive fields. Solving this is very possible, and certain national science programs have already taken steps to deal with this problem. Already, many STEM courses are being infused into tertiary institutions in many states. To deal with a deficiency in certain fields, Africans are being trained at a world-standard level in foreign institutions and agencies like to a point where they could become proficient enough to practice and train others upon return (this system has been particularly effective in other fields of academia, and could work just as well).
In doing this, Africa must also increase the fervour to get Africans to take up STEM courses, and establish more world-standard space and science-related courses in universities and colleges. Scholarship programs and subsidized costs of education in these courses will also certainly be a positive factor.
Another issue that must be discussed, especially if astronauts are to be launched through the African Space Agency, is the issue of inclusion and diversity. Africa is quite diverse and has a wide spectrum of people from different cultures and walks of life. If there is to be continental cooperation — and even if African nations decide to launch citizens to space by themselves — there must be the inclusion of all stakeholders. Socio-political issues should not disrupt the launch plans in any way, and there should be a diverse composition of people from different tribes, races, religion and sexes. Research has done — particularly if achieved by the ASA — should be readily available to member states and should not be politicized.
International cooperation is yet another factor that could help Africa’s plans to launch astronauts to space. Already, African space agencies rely heavily on foreign technology to help develop and execute different space-related programs. In establishing a spaceflight-worthy project, technology and human resources from these countries will be quite essential in building a system that works efficiently. It is assumed that the international space community would be enthusiastic to help positively promote African space programs.
Conclusively, Africa might not be at the verge of launching an astronaut (/astronauts) at the present moment, but its chances of doing this are not so remote that they are undoable. Africa may not be on top of its game in the race to having crewed spaceflights, and a little competition would definitely help (it worked for the USA and the USSR). Hopefully, this decade will see the rapid development of Africa’s spaceflight programs, and perhaps an African finally on the ISS.
This article is a guest contribution from Olaoluwa Jaiyeola, a 21-year-old law student at the University of Ilorin. He’s a big fan of astronomy, chess, animals and books.