The establishment of the SA National Space Agency (Sansa) is not an attempt to pick up where the US left off, says science and technology minister Naledi Pandor.
Earlier this month, the US space-shuttle programme came to an end. After more than 130 missions, over a period spanning 30 years and at a cost of R1.3 trillion, the last shuttle flight took off on 8 July.
Speaking at the opening of National Science Week last week, Pandor said the establishment of Sansa was not an attempt to take over where the US space-shuttle project left off.
“It arose from the groundbreaking work of scientists and young students who met the challenge of building and testing a South African designed satellite (SunSAT). We are now developing a sophisticated scientific and engineering ability in small satellite technology and are considering the redevelopment of our own rocket launch capability.”
The Democratic Alliance says money would be better spent on key infrastructure needs. “I am not convinced that SA needs – or can afford – to build and launch its own satellites at taxpayers’ expense. This is a hi-tech commercial industrial endeavour that should be funded by private investors,” notes science and technology shadow minister Marian Shinn.
“While these satellites will make some contribution to scientific research, their main purpose is commercial applications. We should rather focus our exceptionally stressed scientific funding on areas where we can exploit our unique resources, talents and opportunities to contribute to mainly addressing international health, environmental and developmental needs.”
The theme of Science Week this year is “science for economic development”.
“Sometimes, we do need to be reminded that economic development and science are very closely aligned,” said Pandor.
She added that there were many people who argued the space shuttle cost too much and that it was money badly spent.
“They were possibly not aware that this commitment to and investment in what is sometimes called ‘big science’ is the catalyst for surges in innovation that have huge economic and scientific benefits to society.”
She also said the questions that “big science” tries to address are often answered by finding the solutions to a series of smaller questions.
“In a modern scientific context, these often require collaboration between scientists from a range of different disciplines and have significant benefits to society. The spread of mobile phones and the Internet is testimony to the unexpected benefits of discoveries that arise as a spin-off from efforts to solve the big questions.”
The minister also highlighted the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope, the world’s largest radio telescope, at the launch.
SA is bidding against Australia to host the telescope. The successful country will be named early next year.
“As with the space shuttle, we in SA have learned to plan for our future in astronomy. The innovation required for the Karoo Array Telescope (KAT), for the expanded MeerKAT, and for the SKA, will stimulate major scientific and economic development opportunities.”
Pandor said these opportunities will range from the ICT hardware and software innovations that will be needed to manage the massive amounts of data that will be received by the dishes; to the efficient supply and use of renewable energy; to the engineering and artisanal innovations that will enable the dishes to work and continue working for decades.
“SA has lagged behind many countries in science achievements and innovation. Our country needs to at least quadruple the number of senior researchers, invest millions in science-performing institutions, and support schools to produce excellent students in mathematics and science subjects.”