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Coming soon: Nigerians in space?

Nigeria's space agency is no joke. It has launched satellites and aims to put Africans into space.

Nigeria has launched satellites and has plans to put an African astronaut into space. Earth is seen behind the International Space Station from Space Shuttle Discovery as the two spacecraft begin their relative separation in this photo taken Sept. 8, 2009. (NASA/Reuters)

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.