“Will Africa Ever Land On The Moon?” – Leaders In The African Space Industry Express Opinions On Africa’s Capacity To Launch Lunar Missions

A portrait of the Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, taken by his fellow astronaut Neil Armstrong, standing on the lunar surface on July 20, 1969. Aldrin has his left arm raised and is likely reading the checklist sewn on the wrist cover of his glove. Image Source: NASA

The 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s moon landing in 1969 is being marked by space enthusiasts around the world, and in the spirit of commemorating that landmark event, Space in Africa engaged a number of African space stakeholders on the possible achievements that the African space industry could lay claim to in the near future.

On the possibility of ever having an African country land on the moon, Professor Islam El-Magd, Vice-President of the African Association of Remote Sensing and The Environment, Member, Space Working Group of the African Union Commission, said: “Yes, I believe it can be done. It is a dream but it will happen. African member states have an optimistic vision of space utilisation and exploration. Designated missions to the moon will be on the agenda of African space leaders, and it will be achieved. We understand that it is not a priority now but it will be one of the important steps in the space arena of Africa”.

When asked if Egypt had any ongoing or future ambition for a moon mission or other space exploration missions, Al Magd added, “Egypt has put its own strategy and there is a long term plan to design mission to the moon and make some further space exploration. I am sure this strategy will be implemented one day in the future. Let us dream but work hard to make our dreams reality.”

He also stressed on the importance of African countries to make plans towards missions of this nature, stating that “it might not be a priority for the time being but it will be essential for the future. We are drawing the future of Africa, and when you draw the future you put high-level goals that you have to work very hard to achieve. It is time to think about it to make sure that we do it in the future”.

Dr. Val Munsami, CEO of the South African National Space Agency (SANSA), was also confident about the possibility of landing on the moon in the future. According to him, “eventually I do believe it is possible, but it may be a few decades before we realise this. It takes big budgets and a heavy focus on technological innovation to accomplish such a feat. Currently, African space programmes are primarily focused on optimising the benefits of space applications for addressing our socio-economic-environmental challenges. This said, however, we could fast track such an agenda if a number of African countries decided to make such an initiative a reality, in which case we would need to build the requisite launch and space mission capabilities. Such an approach could help in terms of co-developing the technology base and driving down the cost for any one country. This will, however, require huge political and financial backing”.

On the question of indigenous projects aimed at future exploration of the moon, Munsami replied, “at least two South African companies have payloads/components aboard lunar missions. However, these have not been made public due to non-disclosure agreements. The possibility of a lunar science mission has been discussed within SANSA and the technological base exists in South Africa to undertake such a mission. The only deterrent at this stage is the prohibitive cost involved in such a mission. If the funds can be found for such a mission, then we will certainly plan for such. On the positive side, SANSA is in discussion with the major Space Agencies on hosting a Deep Space Network for the planned Moon and Mars missions and we have already identified an ideal site in South Africa from which to do this”.

Munsami hinted at the need for African countries to prioritise missions of this nature, saying that “missions such as these are vitally important for Africa, as it will break the barrier of what is possible, and certainly push the boundaries of technological innovation that can be used to address our manifold socio-economic challenges. Such missions will be an inspiration to our youth and draw more of them into STEM subjects, which is vital in moving our continent towards a knowledge-based economy. As an African nation, we must embrace new ways of doing things and missions such as these open the door to a multitude of possibilities.

James Barrington-Brown,  CEO of Newspace Systems, was bullish about the chances of witnessing future African expeditions to the moon, noting that “there is already (South) African space hardware on the Moon. NewSpace components were on the Beresheet lander, which unfortunately hit the Moon too fast to survive, but that still means that parts assembled in Cape Town are on the surface there.  Our colleagues at SCS currently have hardware orbiting the Moon on the nCLE mission flying on the Chinese lunar orbiter. I believe there is already the capability within the South African space industry to build a robotic lunar lander, the problem as always is with funding, and there are higher priorities in the Government which makes funding Earth Observation or communications missions more important right now”.

“Having a lunar mission developed in Africa would be a huge motivator for the population, which would hopefully drive aspiration and encourage learners towards STEM subjects (an African version of the U.S Apollo effect). It would also boost African confidence that they can achieve the same things that the so-called advanced nations have done. In the longer term, I would like to see a coming together of the mining community, which is very strong in Africa, especially South Africa, with the space community. It is a decade or two away at least, but asteroid mining will eventually become a mainstream industry. South Africa has the potential to become one of the leaders in the field. Establishing African deep space and lunar technologies in the coming decade would be a good start along that path”, Barrington-Brown added.

Professor Bonaventure Okere, CBSS Director of NASRDA, was also positive in respect of Africa’s lunar aspirations. In his words, “my answer to this question is yes. I have been following space program events in Africa and come to the conclusion that one day an African country will be involved in a space mission. The establishment of the African Space policy is a pointer to this. Some Countries in Africa especially South Africa have started taking some bold steps getting involved in space missions.

When asked about Nigeria’s plans towards a moon mission, Professor Okere responded, “yes, Nigeria, through the National Space Research and Development Agency (NASRDA) has such ambitious plans. Already, unit for space missions has been set up in NASRDA. Though the process may be slow, but it is steady.

He also opined that African space agencies had to create more structures in place for moon-related missions or space shuttle missions at the very least, stating that “any African country keen on joining the league of developing nations must get involved space programs. Mission planning involves manpower development, technology development, IT development, among others”.

When asked about Africa’s aspirations to have some presence on the moon, the immediate past president of the African Association of Remote Sensing of the Environment (AARSE), Prof. Jide Kufoniyi, said: “I am convinced that this will happen but how soon is what I cannot say. The process may be slow, but with the commitment of the African Union Commission, the HRST and the upcoming African Space Agency (AfSA), I foresee the possibility of an African country or at least the AfSA, undertaking exploratory missions to the Moon and/or other celestial bodies. The number of African countries that are showing interest in space science and technology (SST) is increasing, and some of them are starting with research and not just launching satellites. What is needed at the national level is to have the right (visionary) leadership heading the space agency coupled with adequate funding?

On the need to plan more space missions, Kufoniyi was of the view that “SST Research and development is a panacea to the attainment of AU Agenda 2063 (the Africa We Want) and the UN Agenda 2030 on sustainable development. The provision of adequate, fit-for-purpose geospatial data is essential for the implementation, management and monitoring of the development goals and targets, while the efficient acquisition of these data depends on the developments in space science and technology. Planning and undertaking missions like this will contribute to the development and retention of indigenous African capacity (human, organisational and institutional) in SST. Moreover, SST products will be Africa-focused. For instance, in view of the fact that most African countries lie within the tropical zone, a near-equatorial orbiting satellite will be of more value to Africa than polar-orbiting satellite”. 

Dr Chizea Francis of NASRDA, when quizzed about Africa’s chances of achieving a moon landing, said, “an African Country will one day land a man on the moon or a celestial body. It is just a matter of time”.

Dr Francis also noted that Nigeria’s premier space agency had aspirations to literally aim for the Moon, remarking that “one of the main goals of the Nigeria 25 Year Roadmap for the country’s space program is to produce a Nigerian astronaut. The astronaut mission is not just targeted as an image booster, but it also focuses on carrying out experiments in space that are targeted at solving some specific problems of Nigeria and Africa as a whole”.

On the need for Africa to focus on space missions and sponsor them, he said, “space exploration missions will help the African continent domesticate technology, and also increase awareness of the impact of space technology on the potential growth of the African economy”.

Sias Mostert, chairman of the SCS Aerospace Group, expressed confidence in the future actualisation of a moon landing for Africa. In his words, “I am sure an African country will one day land on the moon as well as other celestial bodies.  The Africa 2 Space project is an example of a science mission that is in the works. Another example is the South African company, SCS, which develops technology that has been hosted on a number of satellites either in lunar orbit or post-lunar orbit at the L2 point.  The NCLE radio astronomy mission is yet another example of such a mission.

When questioned on Africa’s readiness to take on a lunar mission, Mostert said, “the upstream commercial space ecosystem is ready to take on a lunar mission.  However, the industry would require a long-term investment and work on international partnerships to achieve such a goal. A long-term vision involving the government, development financiers and other entities would also be required”.

He also stressed the need for African countries to plan actively towards journeying to the Moon. According to him, “it is important for countries in Africa to think and plan for a lunar mission, as countries in Africa have as much use of space resources as the next.  In addition, the practical demonstration of African capability to be part of the lunar ecosystem would go a long way to inspire and motivate the continent’s population to see the possibilities in science and technology, attract the best of African talent to programmes on the continent, and provide access to space resources for further and exploration of the solar system in the future. Lessons learned from the constrained environment in space would also create a better understanding of how to set up the earth ecosystem in symbiosis with the available resources on the planet”.  

Dr Tidiane Ouattara, the Space Expert with the African Union and Programme Coordinator for GMES & Africa, was a tad pragmatic on Africa’s chances at moon exploration, stating that “the ultimate goal is to harness all available opportunities for Africa’s fullest participation in global space activities. This certainly does not preclude moon missions, but the priorities, pace and timing will have to be right. One of the topics currently emerging in the continent is Space Resource Utilisation. As the earth is continually strained of resources, and with the advent of climate change, sustaining life on earth requires much more than what is currently available. This necessitates that we begin to look outside of what the earth could provide. It means that Africa will have no choice than to participate in interplanetary missions to outsource fundamental resources. Africa also needs to participate in Lunar and interplanetary activities in order to derive the attendant socio-political gains”.

On the possibility of the African Space Agency deciding to shift its primary focus to stepping on the Moon, Dr. Ouattara opined that “the African Space Agency’s mission is to coordinate space activities on the continent, look at how to address the gaps, and consolidate the continent’s strengths in terms of resources, infrastructure, capacity and know-how. Of course, it will have immediate, medium and long term issues to address, among which are continental exploration missions under the space science and astronomy domain. There in, moon and other exploration missions will be possibilities to consider”. 

Responding to a question on the need for Africa to plan missions to the Moon, Dr Ouattara said: “As it stands now, investment of most African space agencies is on LEO and GEO (for satellite communication and EO). For those engaging in astronomy, apart from telescope dishes looking into space, we are yet to see any African country that has actively operated satellites for interplanetary missions. This is based on the fact that for African countries, the focus is on communication and EO that has immediate values. However, in the near future, it will become inevitable for Africa to participate in interplanetary activities. Even where this may not be the next priority, it is important to leverage our innovative and technological wherewithal on space exploration for the benefit of the continent”.      

But Etim Offiong, Scientific Officer at the African Regional Centre for Space Science and Technology Education in English (ARCSSTE-E), was not entirely optimistic about Africa’s ability to embark on a mission to the Moon in the near future. When asked about it, he replied, “my immediate response is that Africa should, for now, focus on how to utilise space data and other space applications to solve its problems, as well as utilise its space-based and ground-based to optimum capacity, before thinking of any mission to the Moon or any other celestial body”.

Offiong was also of the view that a lot of patience was needed before Africa would be in a position to send astronauts to the Moon, adding that “as it is now, Africa lacks the needed human and infrastructural capacity for space missions. These things take time to build up. If Africa learns to utilise its current infrastructure, it can support international cooperative space missions. South Africa is currently supporting several foreign missions because of its indigenous capabilities”.

Dr Aboubakar Mambimba, Deputy General of AGEOS, advocated for a more practical approach in the continent’s capacity to meet up with its space aspirations. In his words, “space exploration is a great adventure. It requires the will of political decision-makers and especially funding. Because the development of spacecraft (space shuttle, robots to explore and analyze the soil of planets to explore) is very expensive. In the field of space, we must define priorities. Is it going on the Moon or Mars is now a priority for African countries? I don’t think so.

“On the other hand, the priority for Gabon is to build infrastructures pertaining to Earth Observation, which would allow us to bring efficient solutions to the development challenges and thus improve the living conditions of the populations. This begins with the training of young Africans in general and Gabonese youth in particular. But we must also look at what other space powers are doing in exploring other planets such as the Moon and Mars. For some time, the planet earth has begun to show its limits, particularly with climate change, which has devastating effects on the population. Can the planet Mars, for example, be habitable tomorrow? If so, this may be an alternative and we must go faster in Mars exploration. As to whether one day an African country will go to the moon, I will say yes because world powers were once at the level we are now”.

When asked if Gabon had any aspirations in terms of exploring the Moon, he responded, “by creating a space agency in 2010, Gabon defined its objectives in the short, medium and long term. In the short term, the Gabonese space agency aims at the construction of satellite reception and data processing infrastructure to respond to emergencies pertaining to development and orientation of public policies towards the priority needs of the population. In 2015, AGEOS manufactured a direct data reception antenna as well as an application processing and development centre that meets the needs of the government. In the medium term, the agency will acquire other antennas to diversify its activities, such as spacecraft tracking, weather and other services related to geodesy and telecommunications. Finally, in the long term, Gabon has plans to implement a real space policy with the construction of nano-satellites and involvement in global programs for the development of space activities. We are now finalising the document that would define Gabon’s space policy and strategy”.

On the issue of Africa’s need to plan missions to the moon, Dr Mambimba said, “Africa, through the African Union, has just created a space agency. Space exploration requires human and financial resources. This type of activity can not be done by one country, but rather by collaborative work between African countries via the African Space Agency. Africa can not be on the fringe of technological and scientific evolution, it must think about these kinds of missions”.