An African Space Program

27 August 2011

Saturday


In a BBC article I noticed today, African space research: Dreaming of a manned shuttle, BBC reporter Anna Cavell in Kampala, Uganda has written half patronizingly, half cynically about the African Space Research Program. Even through the filter of a reporter’s skepticism I still have to say that this is one of the most inspiring stories to come out of Africa in some time. And I don’t mean “inspiring” in the patronizing sense. This is a program with a real future.

Africa not only has abundant natural resources, it also has abundant human capital. Any place in the world with so many people is going to have a few real geniuses and a few inspired people who are going to shoot for a mark beyond mere survival. And the fact that this Ugandan space program has few resources counts in its favor, as far as I am concerned.

How can a lack of resources be a benefit to a program? By channeling funds into essentials — with the bargain basement approach to space travel, the funds that are available will go where they’re really needed. It’s sort of like mass and economy of forces as applied to capital: if you want to “win,” you concentrate your money where it is necessary, and you don’t spend where it isn’t absolutely needed.

The BBC story quotes Chris Nsamba, founder of the African Space Research Programme, as follows:

A lack of local facilities is hampering the project and I asked Chris how he plans to simulate zero gravity, for example, in Kampala.

“Easy” he said. “I’ve got a jet engine on order so I’m planning to build a tunnel, put the engine at one end and when I throw a guy in he’ll float in a similar way to how he would in space.”

This strikes me as exactly the right attitude. It has been the custom both in Russia and the US to train their cosmonauts and astronauts extensively, for months or years, before they get a chance to fly. While these procedures can certainly be defended on the grounds of safety, the culture of safety has gone so far as to make the programs risk-averse and therefore there has been a not-so-subtle lowering of sights and tempering of ambition.

I have long suspected that astronaut/cosmonaut training in wealthy nation-states is overkill: I don’t mean to be unfairly critical, but these are people who earn a comfortable upper middle class living while consuming enormous amounts of resources. The press contributes to this my almost exclusively writing about them in quasi-heroic terms. As long as space travel is conducted in this manner, it will never be more than a marginal undertaking.

It is only when astronauts are viewed as truck drivers, and not as heroes, that there will be a space program on the order of magnitude that is necessary to the survival of our species (and, not insignificantly, the species will we take with us). Just as today there are private pilots, many of whom have mastered the operation of relatively complex aircraft such as helicopters, and this on the basis of training only somewhat more in-depth than obtaining a driver’s license, so too in the future of the commercial exploitation of space, astronauts will have a degree of training somewhat more in-depth than atmospheric flight training, but this won’t necessarily be one’s exclusive pursuit in life.

I have personally known people who keep a helicopter in their back yard, and we all know that in places such as Alaska and Australia that the use of fixed wing aircraft is quite common. This is the proper model for space travel, whereas now space travel is being pursued according to the model of big sexy science (with equal measure of expense and prestige).

I think that his model is far more likely to be realized in Africa than in any wealthy nation-state, and that is only one reason that I look at the African Space Research Program with a great sense of hope. I suspect that if some “angel” investor put money into this enterprise, and a few outside experts were brought in to advise, that this would do more for routine and cost effective space travel than most other efforts underway today.

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