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Africa in Space: Down-to-earth benefits from space exploration
By Jennifer Oladipo

Once again, the entire world has it head in the clouds. For various reasons, space exploration is seeing resurgence in popularity, with new efforts to return to the moon and is beyond fueled by public and private interests. Like so many other technologies that were once in the hands of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful, the capabilities for space exploration are opening up to countries all over the world who want to get in the game and claim their bits of space.

African countries are no different.

It is notable that all of this occurs at a time when the United States, the nation that fired the pistol to set off the 20th Century space race, is now considered by some to be lagging behind. If it is not lagging, then it is at least stagnant after horrifying explosions, tabloid-fodder embarrassments, and an insufficient budget have been the biggest news to come out of the agency lately. As the dynamics of space explorations change, African countries have been making small but important steps onto the playing field.

Nigeria established the National Space Research and Development Agency in 1999, launching its first satellite, Nigeriasat-1, four years later. Algeria has a technology sharing agreement with Russia, and has launched its ALSAT-1 satellite. After looking to Nigeria, India and South Korea as guides, South Africa announced plans to open its own space agency. The plan has seen a series of proposed start dates, and the current projection of March 2008 is possibly over-ambitious. There appears to be little doubt, however, that South Africa might have its program by the end of next year.

More than just a foray into the cosmos, African nations’ sharing in space exploration brings a note of prestige, and opens doors to international collaborations. A recent article in Creamer Media’s Engineering News noted that a solid space, science and technology program would give South African scientists opportunities such as designing components for large space missions, the types projects that can keep them at home and help reverse Africa’s “brain drain.”

The space projects have numerous domestic and global benefits. If African countries can prove themselves on a galactic scale, there is no telling what changes might occur in the rest of society. Satellites are now used in so many aspects of our lives, such as city planning, communications and defense. Telemedicine would allow doctors anywhere to assist African physicians in medical procedures, or help make diagnoses. Similarly, distance learning would help bridge educational gaps among rural and urban Africans, while satellites would help bring Africa up to par with the rest of the world’s information technology resources. Moreover, access to natural resources available in space, especially as those on Earth are depleted, will become increasingly important, as will the military capabilities presented by occupation of space.

Africans are working with the United Nations and the U.S. For instance, the University of Mississippi School of Law is helping African nations develop their aviation laws, including space travel, while at the same time encouraging them to contribute to the growing body of international space law. Such contributions would help avoid future inequalities as the world’s eyes and dollars turn increasingly toward space.

At the same time, these ambitious programs are threatened by some of the same problems that have hampered development in other arenas. The most recent news about Nigeria’s NIGCOMSAT-1, its second satellite, launched from China, is tinged with allegations of government corruption and unintended commercial uses as it has moved partially into private hands. One can be sure that such problems indicate conflicts that will ensue as more countries with high poverty rates gain access to lucrative technologies related to space exploration.

Next week the 2nd African Leadership Conference on Space Science and Technology for Sustainable Development will take place in Pretoria, South Africa. The first took place two years ago in Nigeria. Abstracts for the presentations at next week’s event show an Africa that knows what is at stake in the space race, and is looking at it from all angles – from development to disaster management, from pan-African cooperation to patents and sales of satellites, from radio stations to research and development. It also signifies an attempt to take ownership of Africa’s technological future through collaboration across the continent.

That cooperation is the real key to unlocking these doors. When Nigeria was set to launch its second satellite into space, countries including Tunisia, Egypt, Togo, and Burkina Faso stepped forward to discuss possible deals, even as Nigeria was forming usage contracts with European and Asian countries and the United States. In fact, such coordination among Africans is what will attract foreign investment into African space initiatives. It also highlights the need for countries across the continent to work together solving serious problems here on earth. If Africans can make great advances in space, surely they can do the same on their home turf.