By Kasibante David
Since 2016, the president of Uganda has expressed interest in outer space for Uganda, beginning with a satellite as a way of solving many issues plaguing the country. He, in 2018, directed the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, to spearhead this effort. At the same time, Uganda had been selected for the fifth Joint Global Multi-Nations Birds Satellite Project (BIRDS-5) by the Kyushu Institute of Technology in Japan. The state then selected three engineers, who embarked on further studies in Japan and who constructed Uganda’s first satellite. After announcing the approval of a proposal to build a satellite station, in March 2021, and the pending launch of the satellite, called the PearlAfricaSat-1, to the International Space Station (ISS), in early November 2022, those of us familiar with the intricacies of the space sector, were both excited and worried. The former, because, well, it is indicative of growth, the latter, however, because we understand the amount of work ahead.
A satellite is an object that is sent (launched) outside earth, and can vary in sizes and purpose, from the 357-foot-long ISS, to the 10 cubic centimetre ‘CubeSat’, such as Uganda’s, to even smaller ones. These purposes may include earth observation, provision of high-speed internet, and being a lab for experiments in outer space, such as the ISS and the almost completed Tiangong Space Station. The results of these experiments are used to solve problems on earth.
Okay, so what?
Uganda’s need for a satellite depends on which problems can be solved by satellites. Uganda has been plagued in the past with natural disasters. Food insecurity from unpredictable seasons, plaguing the 70% of Ugandans employed in the agricultural sector, a swarm of locusts that invaded north eastern Uganda, floods and landslides in the wet seasons, particularly in the east and the south western areas to mention but a few. Lack of data has been a major factor hindering proper preparation to handle these issues. Another issue is monitoring Uganda’s borders for strengthening the security of the nation, and prevention of threats like the terrorist attacks in mid-November 2021, that were attributed to rebel forces based in the Eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. These are just a few of the issues that can be solved by satellite applications.
Is it worth it, though?
I sit on the fence here. Satellites, if not well managed, may be a technological curse. About 11 countries in Africa have launched over 40 satellites since South Africa’s SunSat-1 was launched in 1999, however, few countries can point to some tangible benefit they have gained since. This mostly stems from poor planning. The development, launch and maintenance of a satellite is astronomical, pun intended. As such, any state looking to have one should have a very robust space policy that has practical and attainable timebound goals for the use of the satellite.
Avoiding the Curse
For starters, we need to manage our expectations. Being a marathon, it often takes decades, several satellites and billions of monies, for space applications to have tangible and integrated effects in the day to day lives of citizens. For example, the most successful space actor, the USA, has injected over 600 billion dollars in its National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), since 1957. Space is still a very costly venture and efforts at this stage, need to be aimed at sustainability, and not perfection. Uganda should consider joining space blocs that have sustainability as a core value. For example, the US Artemis Program and the Africa Space Agency, to be headquartered in Cairo, Egypt. Some of the most successful space projects have been done in coalitions of many states, such as the European Space Agency.
The state benefits from technology and human resource sharing, which also builds cohesion and accountability, very central aspects to a successful space program. The state should invest in local talent, especially the youth, to minimise dependence on foreign expertise. The state should encourage and sponsor these pursue further studies and build capacity. Sustainability stands on local capacity. The state should also popularise the space effort to gain local support for it, like the more successful actors have. The state should invest in media engagement, showing the need for a space program and its benefits to the wanainchi. To conclude this tirade, it is important that the state recognise that it is treading where many have before. It is the prudent thing that the wise man learns from the mistakes of others while charting his own way home.