By Dan Odido
Space enthusiasts keenly followed the landing of a space vehicle on planet Mars on Monday 26th November. The landing of InSight on the surface of the red planet was the second great space technology event of the decade. It was preceded by the 2012 landing of the Curiosity Mars Rover. The really exciting scientific parts of the mission will unfold over the next few months. Unlike its predecessor Curiosity, InSight is a lander and not a rover; it will not move from its current location. The lander will deploy solar panels to power its activities. The landing place was selected close to the Martian equator so as to take full advantage of the sunlight. It will measure temperature, explore for water and get insight into the interior of Mars. It will also deploy a sensitive seismograph to measure ‘marsquakes’ and test the wobble of Mar’s rotation. InSight’s mission is purely scientific.
How we can benefit from the allure of outer space
The interest in outer space however goes beyond curiosity about the formation and structure of outer space and the universe. It provides an obvious strategic military advantage. This was clearly illustrated by the space race of the 1960’s, when the conquest of outer space was the greatest expression of scientific and military superiority.
The competition between USSR and USA brought a rapid succession of landmarks in the exploration of space: first sputnik in 1957; closely followed by Yuri Gargarin as the first human in orbit; first steps on the moon by Neil Armstrong; first space station; first reusable launch system; the list continued. However once the dust settled down, a new reality dawned. Space exploration is not cheap. Its use is however important in improving life for everyone on earth. Space technology has enabled applications in satellite communications, remote sensing, micro gravity research, meteorology, disaster management and several other applications.
Space exploration is collaborative
The modern approach in space exploration is cooperative and not antagonistic. The last years of the twentieth century taught us that space can only be managed as a civilian resource. USA now routinely uses Russian rockets to launch its satellites into orbit. NASA on its part has invited private industries that could most benefit from space in its space exploration endeavours. This spirit was earlier captured by Nikita Khrushchev, leader of USSR in 1959 when he said ‘We regard the sending of the rocket into outer space, and the delivering of our pennant to the moon as our achievement, and by this word “our,” we mean the countries of the entire world, i.e., we mean that this is also your achievement and the accomplishment of all the people living on earth.’ This was echoed by Neil Armstrong one decade later, following his first steps on the moon in 1969: ‘That’s one small step for a man, but one giant leap for mankind.’ It is in this light that the landing of InSight should be seen.
Space exploration is notoriously expensive. The InSight mission cost one billion US dollars over a period of ten years. Even the most powerful and stable economies on earth have seen sense in making collaborative efforts and partnerships. Space partnerships benefit all nations, not just the developed ones.
The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) performs for space what the International Civil Aviation Organisation, ICAO does for aviation. It promotes international cooperation in the peaceful use and exploration of space and technology for sustainable economic and social development.
Economic attraction of outer space
Space can be lucrative. It is likely to become the highest growth industry of the twenty first century. Outer space has practical and mundane applications well beyond the glamour and technical challenges of interplanetary landings and asteroid mining. UNOOSA lists the benefits of space activity in twelve major areas: agriculture; global health; environment; sustainable development; disasters; education; human settlements; research and development; transportation; communication; humanitarian assistance and international peace. Agriculture alone has over 15 UN conventions and programmes related to the application of space technology. Space issues are clearly down-to-earth.
Space agencies in Africa
African nations with space agencies are Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria and South Africa. Kenya joined this elite club with thle establishment of the Kenya Space Agency, KENSA only in 2017 after a long wait. Kenya had previously participated in space agreements with the other countries, seemingly half-heartedly. An earlier agreement by the six nations to launch a constellation of satellites seems to have petered off, with each country going its own way and launching substantially scaled down versions. Kenya eventually launched a cubesat in May 2018, well below the scale that was initially envisaged.
The recent establishment of the space agency however belies the long history of space activity on Kenyan soil. San Marco Space Centre was established in Kilifi in 1964 soon after the advent of the space age by Italian scientist, Luigi Broglio. Several rocket launches have been made from the facility. Luigi’s idea was to use the earth’s rotation to assist in reducing fuel for rocket launches with the added advantage of proximity of the sea to the east. This informed the location of the spaceport off the Kenyan coast at the equator.
KENSA has its work cut out. It should forge partnerships and establish policies that enable it to claim a stake in the growing industry. It should explore the possibility of reviving the failed constellation of African satellites with its partners across the continent. This can supplement the Global Positioning System as well as providing an option for the future. Other countries that have gone along this path are the European Union with the Galileo constellation, Russia with its Glonass constellation and China with Bedou. Over-reliance on a foreign-owned facility for the provision of strategic data and information is risky, as recent decisions in Trump’s USA have clearly illustrated. The possibility of jamming and re-introduction of selective availability of GPS signals in future is not far-fetched.
KENSA should attract and train the next generation of space scientists and engineers. Aspiring astronauts in the country should be given hope, and just maybe one day they could make that journey to outer space. Manned interplanetary spaceflight could happen in the lifetimes of many who are alive today. We should aspire to be part of that journey.
The writer is a university lecturer. firstname.lastname@example.org