To infinity and beyond… there’s no stopping humanity’s drive to explore space, and there’s no reason why South Africans can’t be the trailblazers in this new frontier, says an African American scientist who was involved with the first moon landing.
Professor Hal Walker worked on a laser system that helped to measure the exact distance from the Earth to the moon during the Apollo 11 Moon Landing in 1969.
Fifty years later, he finds himself in Cape Town for the launch, not of a Saturn rocket, but of a dream to put Africa on the highway to the heavens.
Professor Walker, and his wife, Dr Bettye Walker, attended the opening, at Buren High School on Sunday, of the National Space Society’s (NSS) first branch outside of America. Founded in 1987, the NSS is an American non-profit, educational and scientific organisation specialising in space advocacy.
“We are part of the Los Angeles chapter of the NSS and after visiting South Africa in 1997, we realised that Africa could not be left out in space exploration and education. We need to let the world know that Africa is not a dark continent where things don’t happen. This is one of the reasons why we wanted to launch the Cape Town Space Society,” said Dr Walker.
In 1991, the Walkers founded the non-profit, African-American Male Achievers Network (A-MAN), which promotes science, technology, engineering and maths (STEAM) among the youth.
In 2002, Professor Walker started the South African STEM Achievers Programme (an astronomy club) at Ysterplaat Primary School. “I’m always captured by rocket launches as they always remind me that there is a lot of danger in what we do. I lost a friend in the Challenger disaster, and I still think about it to this day,” said Professor Walker.
It was vital to involve young people in science and technology because they would be responsible for making the discoveries that had eluded previous generations, he said.
In 2003, with the help of the Walkers, a then 15-year-old Nomathemba Kontyo flew to America after she won an international essay-writing competition about Mars and other celestial bodies. She spent two weeks at Nasa and had a chance to operate the Rover Opportunity on its mission on Mars.
Now 31, Ms Kontyo, who was at the launch of the centre on Sunday, said she was grateful for the opportunity and wished many more kids could get involved in space exploration, science and technology.
Skylar Martin, an aspiring young space explorer who spoke at the launch, said her father, Donovan Martin, had got her interested in the subject. Mr Martin is the secretary at the Cape Town Space Society.
“My dad is a huge Star Trek fan, and he was always fascinated with space,” said Skylar. “I never thought I would be in this position and sharing great ideas with the type of people I am. I feel really privileged and I love what I do.”
Aspiring astronaut Rajveer Singh Jolly attends Curro Century City. He loves sci-fi movies and books about space.
“One day I tweeted Elon Musk, asking him about how the youth will fare on Mars and what kind of people get to be astronauts.
“I was surprised when he tweeted me back and told me that it doesn’t matter where someone is from, anyone can can go to space,” said Rajveer.
Dr Walker said they wanted to set up centres in other parts of the country and the rest of Africa. Durban and Johannesburg had already shown interest, as had Uganda, she said.
“We used to say that the sky is the limit. But now, that is no longer the case. We can go beyond,” said Dr Walker.