David Smith, Guardian, January 5, 2015
“The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena,” wrote the astronomer Carl Sagan. “Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors, so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.”
Africa has had its fair share of self-important generals and emperors who failed to comprehend the bigger picture. Now the continent is being asked to gaze upward and unite for a common goal: its first mission to the moon.
Organisers of Africa2Moon hope to inspire and educate a new generation of engineers and scientists, as well as shattering prejudices in the rest of the world that often paint this as a hopeless, dependent and scientifically illiterate continent.
“The main reason we chose the moon is that you can walk outside and there it is,” said Jonathan Weltman, manager of the project and chief executive of the Foundation for Space Development. “Kids across Africa can pull out a telescope and see it.”
The ultimate ambition, which could take a decade, is to put a probe on the lunar surface or in orbit around it, then beam back live pictures via the internet to classrooms all over Africa. It will also be a platform for experiments proposed by scientists. But Weltman believes the journey is as important as the destination: every year there will be a related project inviting mass participation.
The non-profit foundation, based in Cape Town, South Africa, has turned to online crowdfunding and is seeking $150,000 by the end of the month for the first phase, which will involve addressing and recruiting students at universities across Africa. So far it has raised $12,744 since 19 November.
It has faced some criticism on social media with sceptics claiming that Africa, still beset by crises such as Ebola and several conflicts, should stay out of the space race. Weltman responded: “You can feel the ‘Afro-pessimism’ coming out. Some perceptions are true and can’t be denied: we have to eradicate corruption, we have to deal with diseases, we have to eradicate poverty.
“But it doesn’t mean you don’t plan for the future at the same time. If we don’t plan for the future, where will we be? It’s ludicrous to think we shouldn’t continue our research and exploration. If we don’t, we’ll lose more and more of our people until we are 100% reliant on the rest of the world.”
Africa2Moon’s less obvious mission back on Earth is to develop skilled workforces in countries with young populations and high unemployment, and to halt the African brain drain to America and Europe. In some parts of the continent, figures show, more than half of university graduates migrate to Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries.
In a recent blogpost, headed “Doesn’t Africa have bigger priorities than going to the moon?”, Weltman wrote: “I was spurred into writing this post after hearing a seriously bright, well qualified and well respected young man, from a very humble and typical rural African upbringing, remark on reading negative comments on stories about Africa2Moon: ‘HOW DARE THEY’.
“By that he meant how dare anyone tell him what he is and is not allowed to aspire to. How dare anyone, who has not walked in his shoes to get where he has gotten, diminish his achievements by telling him there are more important priorities.”
In fact Africa already relies on space more than any other continent, Weltman argues, with satellites providing everything from maps and GPS to applications for agriculture, disaster management, healthcare in remote areas and the internet. “It is really more urgent for us because we don’t have a back-up infrastructure.”
South Africa, Nigeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt all have space and satellite programmes. The lion’s share of the planned Square Kilometre Array, the world’s biggest and most powerful radio telescope, will be spread across South Africa and eight other countries on the continent.
Mandla Maseko, set to become the first black African in space after winning a competition in 2013, welcomed Africa2Moon. “It’s a great initiative,” he said. “The world needs space and Africa needs space more than anybody. Other countries are taking part and Africa needs to gear up for the space wars.”
He added: “The Africa2Moon mission will spark something in people’s minds: space is accessible to everyone, not just Americans and Russians but Africans too.”