Monday, August 29, 2011

Uganda in space

My erudite archaeoastronomical colleague Alun Salt sent me this article on a bunch of space enthusiasts in Uganda who are building a space shuttle in their backyard: African space research: Dreaming of a manned shuttle.

There's lots to love about this: the general craziness of Uganda (some young thing on the television the other day had never heard of Idi Amin), the sheer guts and determination of the volunteers and their leader Chris Nsamba, the openly nationalist agenda, the jackfruit tree in the backyard, and the almost-tenderness of the journalist, Anne Cavell, towards these dreamers.

I've long been interested in Africa's role in space. Nigeria, for example, had one of the very earliest generations of USA tracking station (a Microlock system, I think); in Mozambique, a crazy Portuguese dude built his own tracking station back in the 1950s. A few years ago I had one of my students do a project on Nigeria's space heritage, to explore the kinds of values that might be appropriate for space places outside of the Cold War western industrial complexes. I love the ambition of Uganda's attempts to participate in space, and why shouldn't they be ambitious? The big spacefaring states have had it all their way for too long.

And of course this fits very nicely into one of the often-overlooked themes of space travel, the role of amateurs and enthusiasts.  The historical importance of rocket societies in the earlier part of the 20th century, and their contribution to space exploration as we know it today, has been well-researched; but people tend to forget that amateurs and the public continue to be involved in making their own kinds of space.  My favourite example of this is Australis Oscar V, the satellite designed and built by Melbourne University students in the 1960s, and still in orbit.

Maybe Uganda won't have their own space shuttle or astronauts in the next decade, but I don't think that's the point. It's what they'll learn and accomplish along the way that makes this a significant project to watch.

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