David Smith, Guardian (London), September 6, 2012
He would not be everyone’s first choice as an ambassador for Africa in outer space. The Sudanese president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, is wanted by the international criminal court on charges of war crimes but had other matters in mind when he addressed a regional conference on Wednesday.
“I’m calling for the biggest project, an African space agency,” Bashir told a gathering of communications ministers in Khartoum. “Africa must have its space agency.” It “will liberate Africa from the technological domination”, he said.
His call follows a controversial decision two years ago by the African Union (AU) to conduct a feasibility study that would draw up a “roadmap for the creation of the African space agency”.
Since then, African astronomers received a massive boost when South Africa was awarded the lion’s share of the Square Kilometre Array, the world’s biggest radio telescope, which will see dishes erected in nine African countries. But sceptics question whether a continental body in the mould of Nasa or the European Space Agency would merely add bureaucracy and financial burdens that the world’s poorest continent can ill afford.
A working document issued for the conference in Khartoum says the agency, called AfriSpace, would enable “co-operation among African states in space research and technology and their space applications”.
Only “a tiny minority” of countries presently control space technologies, which play a major role in everything from broadcasting to weather forecasting, agriculture, health and environmental monitoring, the document notes.
“A common continental approach will allow the sharing of risks and costs and ensure the availability of skilled and sufficient human resources. It will also ensure a critical size of geographical area and population required in terms of the plan of action for some space applications.”
AfriSpace would implement a long-term African space policy, recommend “space objectives” to member states and co-ordinate orbital slots and other space resources, the document adds.
Co-operation on space would be a notable breakthrough for a continent where political and trade barriers remain notoriously obstructive. It is hoped there would be spin-offs in terms of employment, skills and new technologies.
But Sarah Wild, a South African science journalist, said: “South Africa took years to get its own space agency up and running. It takes time and money. Personally I think an African space agency is a bit of a pie in the sky idea. I’d be interested to see where they get the resources and skills.”
Wild, the author of Searching African Skies, added: “Africa needs space projects but I think rather than the pomp and circumstance of an agency they should concentrate resources on projects that are already there.”
The plan has also run into trouble over its proposed name. The African Space Institute posted a message on its website stating: “It has come to our attention that the African Union are trying to make use of the name ‘AfriSpace’ for their African space agency.
“AfriSpace has been in use by the African Space Institute and Orbital Horizon since 2009 and we are the rightful users as well as recognised stakeholders in the space sector. We have requested a response from them on this matter and have offered to discuss further regarding the use of our used name.”
Africa is no newcomer to stargazing. In 1820 the Royal Observatory at the Cape of Good Hope became the first of its kind in the southern hemisphere. In 2002, the IT millionaire Mark Shuttleworth flew on a Russian Soyuz rocket to become the first African in space.
An African space race is already under way. Nigeria, Algeria and Egypt each have two satellites in orbit while Angola has one. South Africa was unique in building its own but this is now out of communication. A Ugandan space scientist has begun building a test aircraft in his back garden.
On Wednesday a Pretoria-based Twitter user with the name Psyber Consulting posted: “AfriSpace?! Seriously — what about Afri-Feed-The-Poor!”