Starring South Africa
In case you hadn’t heard, South Africa now has a space agency. At least, on paper it does. One of the things Kgalema Motlanthe did during his short but lively time as placekeeper president in early 2009 was sign the National Space Agency Act into being.
Before this, South Africa’s involvement in space science was governed by the Space Affairs Act of 1993 and its 1995 amendment – Acts that primarily aimed to keep South Africa’s nose clean in terms of international space treaties, particularly with regard to the use of missile-launching facilities. By contrast, the new National Space Agency Act is more of a make-it-happen kind of law, empowering the government to initiate space programmes, fund and own companies involved in space science, and partner with tertiary education facilities to put in place training programmes.
The signing of the 2009 Act was a momentous occasion that was almost instantly crowded out by more pressing news items such as the national elections and the economic recession, but it did serve to endorse the South African Government’s commitment to space science, which could, in the past, be described as temperamental at best.
Consider the story of the GreenSat. GreenSat was a low-orbit surveillance satellite – a spy satellite, if you will – built and designed in the 1980s by the South African military. Because of sanctions against the country at the time, no one was willing to launch the satellite, so the military enlisted the help of international experts (Israelis, apparently, but you didn’t hear that from us) to build its own ballistic missiles.
It’s chilling to consider that these missiles were also designed to deliver nuclear bombs, and that the option of launching satellites was actually just a fun side project. So it was a mixed blessing when, after many years of development, history in the form of apartheid’s last leader intervened before the finishing touches could be made to the final launch missile, the RSA-3.
After FW de Klerk unbanned the ANC and other revolutionary parties in 1990, and it became clear that the next government was going to be black-led, the outgoing government went on an evidence-shredding spree. GreenSat was a casualty of the political panic: in 1992 and 1993, the outgoing government slashed funding for the missile (read: nuclearbomb transport) part of the space project.
In June 1993, Denel – newly hatched from arms-manufacturing company Armscor – launched one last desperate attempt to keep GreenSat alive by marketing it as a commercial satellite at the Paris Air Show. “GreenSat will orbit 300 to 700 km above the Earth and has been designed primarily as an aid for the management of natural resources,” New Scientist reported, rather optimistically, at the time.
But GreenSat’s course had been set. After the 1994 elections, the new government wasn’t having anything to do with a costly space project that looked, walked and talked suspiciously like a nuclear-arms programme. To drive this point home, it used its very first budget vote in May 1994 to clip GreenSat’s wings for good.
All told, South Africa’s first space programme cost the taxpayer R5 billion. Had the government been able to see past the nuclear red flags to the potential inherent in GreenSat, South Africa could well have put its first satellite into space, on the back of its very own spaceship, by 1995. As it turned out, South Africa’s first satellite was put into orbit only in February 1999, and it had to hitch a ride on a Nasa Delta II rocket to get there.
SunSat, the victorious satellite in South Africa’s own space race, was built by post-graduate students at Stellenbosch University as part of a research programme. The small satellite – measuring only 45 x 45 x 60 cm and weighing a mere 60 kg – orbited the Earth, taking snapshots of our topography and beaming and receiving radio signals, for almost two years.
“SunSat was spectacularly successful during the its operational lifespan,” says Ron Olivier, executive director and head of business development for SunSpace, the spin-off company created by the core team that made SunSat. In January 2001, communication with SunSat was lost, two years before its expected expiry date, probably as a result of bumping into some American debris. Such is life in space, the polluted frontier.
Even though the new government contributed funding towards the development of SunSat, its involvement in the project was largely silent. But nothing tweaks the interest of politicians quite like success, and that of SunSat seemed to galvanise the State into action. In the years that followed, various national departments, especially the Department of Science and Technology (DST), got involved with the building of the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT), the international Square Kilometre Array (SKA) bid, and the development of SKA’s pioneer programme in the Karoo, the MeerKAT. (Read all about SALT and SKA online at www.popularmechanics.co.za).
In 2005, the same year SALT came online, the DST commissioned SunSpace to build a second satellite. It bankrolled everything about the project, from university experiments and postgraduate studies for engineers to the launch in Russia and the use of CSIR’s existing Satellite Application Centre at Hartebeesthoek to track the satellite once it was in orbit.
The resulting satellite, SumbandilaSat, was launched last year from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan aboard a Russian Soyuz-2 rocket. It was initially supposed to have been launched from a Russian submarine on the surface of the Bering Sea between December 2006 and February 2007 but this was delayed. Rumour has it Russia pulled the plug because of an altercation over payment in the controversy-ridden arms deal, but SunSpace contends it happened because international permission to decouple the satellite from the rocket over California was withheld for safety reasons.
Whatever the problem, a solution was eventually found and SumbandilaSat took to the skies on 17 September 2009, taking with it the hopes of many a South African space nut. It carried four payloads: two science experiments (one on lightning and climate change, the second on forces in space); a communications radio that is being used by amateur radio enthusiasts; and a camera that takes photos of the Earth at a resolution of about 6,2 m. The camera is of particular importance because it provides the Earth imagery needed to develop programmes that, for instance, monitor air quality and water distribution, which can ultimately be used for planning to increase food security.
In the past, South Africa would have had to purchase these images from overseas vendors, which at a reported R10 million a year was more costly than launching the satellite (which cost approximately R30 million, including the launch) in the medium to long term.
Building SumbandilaSat also highlighted the problems faced by space science in South Africa. “SumbandilaSat was a test bed for future satellite missions,” says Dr Phil Mjwara, director-general of the DST. “It allowed us to identify specific human, financial and technical challenges in South Africa so that we can address them.”
Human resources in particular are a problem, says Olivier. “Due to a shortage of technical capacity, our labour markets are distorted to the point where talented development engineers and technicians are paid inflated salaries as technology and other managers. As a result, research and development capacity in industry and science councils are reduced to subcritical levels.”
This imbalance is in the process of being addressed, with the DST investing heavily in bursaries and training programmes for engineers and technicians at tertiary education level, but it will take time and sustained effort for the effect to be felt.
Meanwhile, the government has its hands full with rolling out the new South African National Space Agency (SANSA). Progress so far has been slow, and there is a lot of work to be done. “We are in the process of formally appointing a board of directors and a chief executive officer for SANSA, after which we will need to recruit critical staff and put in place various support systems,” said Mjwara at the time of writing. “We are also intensifying our efforts to get a business plan ready for the operational phase, which is set to begin on 1 April 2011.”
When SANSA finally shuffles into the light in 2011 (or – place your bets now – 2015), will South Africa’s Nasa be building its own launch capabilities, perhaps even sending Saffers into orbit? Not within the next decade, from the sounds of things. “One needs to approach the development of launch capabilities with considerable caution for two primary reasons, namely, the capital-intensive nature of such an initiative and the sensitivity around developing such a capability,” says Mjwara. “These are issues that need to be robustly debated in the policy space, and this discussion has started in earnest.”
Olivier is optimistic that it will happen. His only doubt is whether he will be alive to see it. “My colleagues look at me funny – even my chairman thinks I’m a bit loony – but I hope and believe that, at some point in the future, this small company and other space endeavours in Africa will be able to place an African in space on an African spacecraft from African soil. This may only happen beyond my generation, but I truly believe this stupendously expensive dream has also proven to be stupendously exciting for all mankind.”
* Video: Watch the launch of SA's SumbandilaSat