Young hope­fuls vie to be­come first black African in space


In half a cen­tury of space travel more than 500 peo­ple have glimpsed the Earth from the unique van­tage point of the cos­mos, yet no black African has been among them.

Now a Nige­rian and two South Africans are in a race to be­come the first af­ter be­ing short­listed in a global tal­ent search to send a “young icon of the fu­ture” into the heav­ens.

The win­ner will un­dergo in­tense train­ing, ex­pe­ri­enc­ing ex­treme G-forces and weight­less­ness be­fore tak­ing off in Amer­i­can devel­oper XCOR’s Lynx space­craft, on a voy­age loosely en­vis­aged for next year.

Among the three is Free­man Osonuga, who is com­pet­ing with 30 hope­fuls short­listed for the Ris­ing Star Pro­gramme run by tal­ent agency Kruger Cowne and the One Young World char­ity, both based in Lon­don.

“It feels great, be­ing on the verge of mak­ing history. And to be in a po­si­tion to in­spire a gen­er­a­tion and the con­ti­nent,” said Osonuga, a doc­tor at a teach­ing hos­pi­tal in La­gos, Nige­ria’s largest city.

“It would be a rare op­por­tu­nity to be a bea­con of hope to the con­ti­nent, that truly we can lit­er­ally reach for the stars and ful­fill our po­ten­tial.”

Osonuga, who grew up in poverty in the south­east­ern state of Ogun, the youngest of six chil­dren, is no stranger to risk.

The 30-year-old re­turned in May from six months in Sierra Leone as part of the African Union’s Ebola re­sponse team, for which he was given the coun­try’s Mer­i­to­ri­ous Ser­vice Award.

He ac­knowl­edges the dan­ger in which he placed him­self but main­tains that “ev­ery ef­fort to save fel­low hu­man lives” is worth the po­ten­tial pit­falls.

“My risk-tak­ing ven­tures aren’t just for plea­sure or fun, but for hu­man­i­tar­ian pur­poses,” said the medic, who told AFP he had al­ways wanted to ex­pe­ri­ence weight­less­ness.

XCOR of­fers one-hour flights for US$95,000 (84,000 eu­ros) on a shut­tle that takes off from the Mo­jave Desert in Cal­i­for­nia. It has al­ready sold hun­dreds of tick­ets, although com­mer­cial trips.

Its Lynx Mark II space­craft is ca­pa­ble of car­ry­ing a pi­lot and a pas­sen­ger over the 100-kilo­me­tre (62-mile) limit known as the Kar­man line — the bor­der be­tween the at­mos­phere and outer space.

The Ris­ing Star short­list will be whit­tled down to three fi­nal­ists who will de­liver a 15-minute speech on any sub­ject to an au­di­ence of 1,300 from 196 coun­tries at the One Young World Sum­mit in Bangkok in Novem­ber.

it has yet to start

‘A chance at such great­ness only val­i­dates

that pas­sion’

A panel of judges will then de­cide which can­di­date most de­serves the jour­ney of a life­time and the right to call them­selves an as­tro­naut.

Nono Cele, 28, a lead­ing Johannesburg-based sports broad­cast­ing pro­ducer and di­rec­tor, is another of the con­tenders and told AFP the idea of be­ing the first black African in space “gives me goose bumps.”

“My back­ground, my coun­try, my strug­gles and my mis­takes have all told me that these things are not pos­si­ble for a per­son like me — black, fe­male and South African,” she said.

“So, to even stand a chance at such great­ness only val­i­dates that pas­sion in me that my life is mean­ing­ful. My life is valu­able. And most im­por­tantly, I can make a dif­fer­ence.”

Cele is joined by Tshepo Seloane, 25, from South Africa’s north­ern province of Gaut­eng, an ad­viser to the Nel­son Man­dela Chil­dren’s Fund and a cam­paigner on a va­ri­ety of youth is­sues.

Quite when any of the hope­fuls would ac­tu­ally reach space is sub­ject to the va­garies hi-tech en­gi­neer­ing and the timetable for their flights re­mains as up in the air as they hope to be.

A fourth con­tender in the race, part-time South African DJ Mandla Maseko, landed a cov­eted seat in 2013 to join one of the Lynx Mark II flights.

He was due to fly this year af­ter win­ning a com­pe­ti­tion or­ga­nized by the U.S.-based AXE Apollo Space Academy but no firm plans for his trip have yet been made public. Although the stated pro­gram for the “Ris­ing Star” win­ner is to board a flight in 2016, progress had been slower than ex­pected on de­vel­op­ing the space­craft. Plans for an op­er­a­tional ve­hi­cle by 2010 slipped first to early 2012 and then to 2015.

Mean­while XCOR says on its web­site it only ex­pects to start the Lynx Mark I test­ing phase — which will last up to 18 months — to­wards the end of 2015. A rep­re­sen­ta­tive of Maseko, who calls him­self “The Afro­naut,” told AFP his flight had been resched­uled for “early 2016” while XCOR did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment.

All four can­di­dates will claim a unique place in history if they are lucky enough to get a place on an XCOR flight, but will be fol­low­ing a trail blazed by Ar­naldo Ta­mayo. The 73-year-old Cuban was pro­claimed the first black per­son in space when he was launched into or­bit aboard the Soyuz 38 on Sept. 18, 1980.

The first African in space was Mark Shut­tle­worth, 40, a South African en­tre­pre­neur who now lives on the Isle of Man, a Bri­tish Crown de­pen­dency, and holds dual cit­i­zen­ship.

He made head­lines around the world when he be­came the sec­ond self-funded space tourist aboard Rus­sia’s Soyuz TM-34 mis­sion on April 25 2002.


Space en­thu­si­ast Free­man Osonuga holds a cam­paign flyer to so­licit sup­port for his quest to be se­lected to be the first black African in space in La­gos, Nige­ria, Fri­day, Aug. 21.

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