When one thinks of exciting developments in space exploration, the continent of Africa is not usually the first place that comes to mind. Many people in Africa struggle to meet basic needs, and on the surface of it, African space programs would appear to be low on the list of necessities.
Yet bolstered by the idea that space exploration can aid in developing a prosperous nation, a number of African countries are making progress at a steadily increasing pace for science and space exploration.
Among these countries are Ethiopia, Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Uganda, Angola, Ghana, and Kenya. They are at varying stages of development, with some countries already having developed full-fledged programs with operating satellites.
Nigeria and South Africa are regarded as leaders in the African space programs. South Africa launched its first satellite (SUNSAT) in 1999 and created a full-fledged national space agency (SANSA) in 2010. As of today, the country operates three satellites. Nigeria, the other veteran of the business, has had a space agency (NASRDA) since 2001 and currently operates five satellites.
Other countries are following suit, hoping to achieve similar success. Angola is about to take a major step, planning to launch its first satellite, AngoSat-1, in 2016. Ghana began its space program in 2012, with plans to launch its own satellites within the decade. Most recently, Ethiopia started the first space program in East Africa, completing the construction of a privately funded astronomical observatory.
To skeptics, funding space programs in Africa seems to be a misallocation of money in a continent beset with poverty. This money, they argue, could be better spent towards traditional aid. However, African space programs can provide tremendous economic and humanitarian benefits for countries that have them.
Satellites provide the most tangible benefits by playing a huge role in sectors such as telecommunications and agriculture. They are used for environmental and water management, soil assessment, disaster planning, gathering meteorological data, and GPS technology.
Furthermore, satellites can be used to monitor illegal activities. In Nigeria, satellites have been used to track the terrorist group Boko Haram and to provide election monitoring in 2011 to ensure more people were getting a chance to vote.
In addition, owning their own satellites allows African governments to operate more independently and effectively. Otherwise, governments must rent satellites from other countries or foreign companies for their broadcasting and telecommunications. Having their own satellites would allow countries to customize the design to best fulfill their needs, allowing for better solutions to local problems.
Aside from satellites, space programs also create jobs and improve scientific knowledge and education in a country. They encourage space education at all levels – from primary school to universities. Local scientists and engineers stand to become smarter and more skilled. And as the programs gain visibility, future generations will also be inspired to enter the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields.
While exploring space and developing technology are great imaginative endeavors, they also have enormous practical and humanitarian purposes. In this light, African space programs can be seen as part of an attempt to alleviate poverty and increase education and security for all citizens.