On February 14,2014, whilst standing in the control center of the European Space Agency in Cologne, Germany observing the International Space Station (ISS) orbiting the Earth, what echoed in my mind was, “Will African scientists ever build such a marvelous scientific piece?”
Twenty-five years ago, I first read about Yuri Gagarin, Neil Armstrong and the Apollo mission in a science book; little did I know that two and half decades later I would get to meet astronauts, see spacecrafts and even write scientific proposals to conduct research work on astronauts. Unbelievable!
This gives me hope that Africa’s involvement in the space race is very much possible. It is not surprising that because of Africa’s little or no involvement in space exploration, the first question after I exchanged greetings with an Australian doctor who joined me in the space medicine program at Wright State University in Dayton Ohio, was “What are you doing here?” As one of only three doctors from three countries (South Africa, Ghana, and DR Congo) in the continent trained in the field of space medicine (not aviation medicine), it is an honor for me to decode the ISS.
The ISS is what is known as a low Earth orbital space station because it is only about 400km above the Earth surface. The ISS is about the size of a soccer field and weighs about 400 tons. It can accommodate six astronauts at a time. The ISS is the product of the biggest scientific cooperation agreement between the West and Russia and one of the biggest inventories of mankind.
It is also a collaboration between the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan, and 10 European Nations. This is the only agreement between Russia and the United States that I know is respected even at the peak of political tensions between the two nations. The station was constructed wholly in space and cost about $150 billion dollars over a 30-year period. That is about the wealth of the richest man on Earth.
The only vehicle that transports astronauts to and from the station is the Russian Soyuz capsule, the most reliable and safe space vehicle ever built. The space shuttle of the United States has also conducted manned spaceflights to and from the ISS but was retired in 2011. Elon Musk’s Space X has conducted cargo flights to the space station and is currently performing test flights to start sending manned missions to the ISS soon. The station rotates the Earth every 90 minutes, 24 hours a day/seven days a week.
The wing-like projections on the station are solar panels that provide electricity for the station. Food is basically prepacked from Earth and not freshly prepared. Urine is recycled into water for drinking. Astronauts who travel to the station mainly carry out research work. Some of the astronauts are subjects for some of the experiments.
One of the most dangerous activities in space is an extravehicular activity (EVA) or spacewalk. Therefore, it was news when two Russians performed nearly eight hours of spacewalk last month to investigate a hole that caused a drop in pressure in the ISS.
When the West and Russia decided to build the ISS, China was excluded from joining the international partnership because of China’s human rights record and other reasons, and by a law passed by Congress, the United States cannot collaborate with China in space exploration. The Chinese took a decision to venture into space exploration and through several years of planning and attempts, launched a manned spacecraft; the Shenzhou 5 in 2003 into space.
The Chinese are planning on building a permanent space station by 2020. On January 3, 2019, the Chinese announced that they had successfully landed a probe, the Chang’ e 4, on the dark side of the moon, a milestone never attained by the world’s space powers. The dark side of the moon is the part that is not facing Earth. This marks a new milestone in Chinese Space exploration.
Donald Trump announced last year that the United States is going to build a space force as another arm of the military. Russian may already have one in secret since they are noted not to talk much about what they do in space.
The next phase of the race will be the first nation to send humans to Mars which requires a travel time of six to nine months. The world awaits to see which part of the Earth will rise to Mars first.
Space exploration is an expensive venture and for a continent plagued with an infrastructural deficit, poverty and crippling corruption, it will be difficult for a single nation in Africa to embark on a mission to space. For this reason, Africa will need an African Space Agency through the African Union just as the European nations did for the continent to rise with Earth when it is rising.
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