“This is probably the biggest science project on the whole continent,” says Pontsho Maruping, SARAO deputy managing director. “We’ve already started training astronomers in other African countries.”
“What excites me is the fact that it allows people on the African continent to really contribute to one of the most technologically advanced industries in the world,” she adds.
Several of those programs include women in leadership roles. In celebration of International Women’s Day, meet three inspiring female pioneers shaping the future of space exploration across Africa and beyond.
Jessie Ndaba, space engineer
Space “was and is a calling,” Ndaba says, noting that her fascination began with a photo of a rocket engine in a textbook gifted by her grandmother, who raised her in Johannesburg.
Having experienced the industry’s evolution over the last 15 years, she says the key to success in the sector is collaboration — and helping people on Earth. “We are all for partnering with other countries in Africa or outside Africa,” Ndaba says, “as long as we are working toward improving people’s lives.”
But she says sometimes that message gets lost, pointing to the common criticism that space endeavors are expensive and that governments like South Africa’s should be investing in improving the lives of its citizens.
“There’s a number of benefits that we get from what we do, but we fail to communicate it to people,” Ndaba says, adding that satellite imagery can be used to assess land quality for farming or housing construction.
“We’re always looking at the challenges that people are facing, and we look for the solution.”
Adriana Marais, physicist and explorer
Adriana Marais has set her sights on Mars — and it’s a mission she’s been planning for as long as she can remember.
“If I had to choose a particular outcome for my life, spending my last days on Mars would be it,” Marais says.
“We will have teams arriving, setting up infrastructure from scratch, and living and doing research in those extreme locations for duration of the experiment,” says Marais.
In December 2019, she traveled to Antarctica to begin setting up a community where selected participants will spend nine months in complete isolation. The project is now on hold because of the pandemic but Marais says Antarctica will be an ideal testing ground.
“I feel we have a duty living in this challenging era,” says Marais, “creating a future that we can be proud of, whatever planet we’re on.”
Ruvimbo Samanga, space law adviser
Growing up in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, Ruvimbo Samanga first became interested in space as a young girl. But she never thought her love of “all things extra-terrestrial and extra-planetary” could become a viable career, and pursued law instead.
From there, “the opportunities were boundless,” she says. “I think (space law and policy) just give me the most effective way of bringing about change in the industry. It’s so exciting to see the field developing right before your eyes.”
For Samanga, all her work — from law and policy to satellite tech — stems back to her childhood fascination with space. She’s now sharing that dream with students in Zimbabwe, inspiring the next generation of space explorers from the African continent.
“I dream for a world where girls do not have to question themselves and are not questioned,” she says. “My dream is to see more African youth, especially young girls, in the African space industry.”
CNN’s John Lewis and Ian Hooper contributed to this report.