Coming soon: Nigerians in space?

LONDON, U.K. — Recently I received an email labeled "Strictly Confidential" from Dr. Bakare Tunde, who said he was astronautics project manager at Nigeria’s space agency. He also told me he was the cousin of the first African in space, Air Force Major Abacha Tunde, and that this poor intrepid astronaut had been stranded on a secret Soviet military station ever since the Soviet Union dissolved in 1990.

“He is in good humor,” read the email, “but wants to come home.” No wonder he was keen to hurtle back earthwards, Tunde told me his cousin had accumulated almost $15 million in pay. For the price of my bank account details, I could claim 20 percent and fly the brave chap home to collect my portion of the earnings and transfer the rest on to him like the good space-supporter that I was.

This classic 419 scam is indeed far-fetched but one aspect of it is true.

Nigeria really does have a space agency. The west African nation’s National Space Research and Development Agency is already celebrating its 10th anniversary. And as America and Europe’s space agencies set their sights on joint exploration of Mars, Nigeria has big plans of its own: It wants to send a Nigerian up into space in 2015, making Nigeria home to the first black African astronaut.

Sitting across from Gerald Okeke, it’s hard to fathom that the quietly spoken fellow might one day fly beyond the earth’s atmosphere. Okeke, 28, is one of 27 Nigerian engineers being trained how to design and build an earth observation satellite in the U.K., at private British company Surrey Satellites Technology in Guildford, southeast of London. We are sitting in the canteen of the spacecraft-mad company, from whose ceilings dangle silver starburst lights and whose rubbish bins are shaped like shiny rockets.

“There is much to learn but we are coping,” says Okeke, whose father was also a scientist. “It’s a big challenge. Talking about space in Africa is kind of a new field but it’s a very big opportunity for us to explore.”

He says it would be an honor to be picked as Africa’s first black space sailor — who must be aged 27 to 37 at the time of lift-off and whose selection will begin next year ahead of four years of training. Okeke has already spent several years studying in the U.K., which he says is challenging. “The weather can be trouble and we try to cope with the food even though it’s not what we eat in Nigeria,” said Okeke.

His is not the only sacrifice in an expensive and widely questioned mission. Nigeria spends $20 million a year on its space program, in a country in which for every thousand children born, 137 will die before they are five years old. A collapse in the value of Nigeria's naira currency — in part attributable to the global downturn — has meant the costs of its payments in U.S. dollars have also rocketed by a third.

“Even in the U.S. some people are opposed to the space program so we are not surprised this happens here,” says Seidu Onailo Mohammed, CEO of the Nigerian space agency. “But we want to assess the problems that have devastated this land. We need to monitor our environment, assess problems of flooding, deforestation — all this can only be done if we have a viable space program. Plus after so many years it’s a good idea to think of an astronaut.”

The country jetted up a $13 million earth observation satellite, made in the U.K. and launched from Russia, in 2003. A much more expensive communications satellite, costing hundreds of millions of dollars, was launched from China in 2007. It failed within 18 months
but a replacement is due to be propelled into space by 2011, paid for by insurance.

But still the Nigerian agency wants more money. The government believes it will all pay off in the end.

Already the earth observation satellite has taken some pretty impressive snaps including pictures of poppy growing in Afghanistan, the state of cyclone damage after Myanmar’s authorities restricted access to international rescue teams in 2008 and, closer to home, identifying the whereabouts of illegal tankers parking far out at sea to steal Nigeria’s oil supplies.

Nigeria has managed to sell about 1,000 of its satellite images and hopes over the course of each satellite’s lifetime such data sales will cover the costs of manufacture and operation.

“We are bringing down space to apply it on the ground,” says Francis Chizea, Director of the Nigerian space agency. “It’s going to be very very important for the economy. We can map the wetlands and advise on areas very good for rice production; monitor desertification in the north; find the best place to locate dams; assess the environmental impact of oil drilling; locate oil spills and track movements on the border.”

It’s all been made possible by a new approach to space science that has let developing nations in on the extra-terrestrial act.

“We’ve been able to shrink a satellite from a double-decker bus down to the size of a TV set,” says Martin Sweeting, the British founder of Surrey Satellites Technology, a radio fanatic as a child who decided space shouldn’t be the privilege of the rich nations. “It’s now possible for an African country to have its own satellite for $10 to $15 million. It can yield real benefits at the right price.”

South Africa, Algeria and Egypt are all marshaling their own satellite facilities, so there’s no question Africa’s scientists are reaching for the stars.