The normal reaction when the African Space Research Programme (ASRP) based in Kampala is discussed is one of disbelief. But when international media houses – like BBC and CNN – start paying attention and Hillary Clinton decides to phone, people start to take it more seriously.
Chris Nsamba, the 27 year old from Kampala who heads the programme describes getting the call from Clinton as one of the most shocking experiences of his life. “She said congratulations on what we’re doing and asked me to ‘stop by and say hello’ when I’m next in the U.S.”
In the international press, the idea has been portrayed mostly as a variation of either sweet but ultimately doomed or downright crazy. Chris is well aware of the perceptions saying that they placed a poll on the ASRP website to get an idea of what Ugandans thought about the idea of Ugandan space research and exploration and about 70% just don’t believe it.
But this doesn’t dissuade him and he has a profoundly pragmatic approach to space exploration.
“The only thing we can do,” Chris says. “Is let what we do do the talking. It lets people know that we’re serious about our mission; that we’re focused on our work and we don’t mind what people think. Some people view us as heroes and some make fun of us. We just keep focusing on what we’re doing.”
Where did this compulsion to put Uganda in space come from? It started early. In his third year of elementary school in 1996 in the U.S. (primary 4), Chris built a manned glider out of Manila paper and then, ‘jumped off a small cliff’ in it. He was airborne for few minutes. From there he kept designing more complicated planes including remote control planes. As a child, Chris says he used to have arguments with his friends insisting that the sky was filled with ‘other worlds’ and that those worlds were grouped around suns that shone in the night. His friends told him that the stars were just small light bulbs.
Chris developed a strong interest in astronomy which he studied at the University of Texas before returning to Uganda and starting the African Space Research Programme. In 2011, the team built a small prototype thruster which they launched from Ntinda. Using GPS, they tracked it crossing the Kármán line (100km above sea level) which is considered the lower boundary between earth and outer space. Everything in the thrusters they made themselves – including the rocket fuel.
Chris thinks that space travel will become normal in our lifetimes. “Space travel isn’t a big deal,” he maintains. “It’s expensive because these guys sell the planes and planes are expensive. They aren’t expensive because of the materials but because of time, knowledge and technology invested. Right now space travel and tourism is way too expensive because all that technology is being sold at a high price. I’m not a rich guy and I launched a thruster into space. That shows you that it’s not expensive.”
At the moment the team (which consists of 38 technicians and 364 other people who support them) is working on the ‘Independence Mission’ where they hope to launch another space craft from Kololo grounds on Independence Day. It is hoped that the small craft will travel into the lower orbits of space with mice on board, take sampling of space dust and then the craft will be stalled bringing it back to earth. A video camera will be attached enabling Ugandans to see the travel from Kololo grounds to outer space. It is expected that it will take 8 hours, 45 minutes before they stall the engines.
To make his point about the cost of space research Chris adds that they’ve done some research and basic estimates place the Independence Mission project at between 2.8 to 4.9 million dollars. “We’re designing it for a few thousand dollars.”
In general space has always been viewed as the purview of governments – mostly because they’re the ones with enough money to do the construction and research – so how does the Ugandan government feel about the programme? Well, strongly enough to offer a $250,000 USD gift as well as giving permission from the vice-president to launch on Independence Day if the mission is ready.
The last, unanswered question is the ‘why’ of it all. Why start a space programme? “I wanted to do something for Uganda,” he says. “I’m trying to do my part. I want to get to be 70 and see that I’ve done something for my country.” He laughs, “I want to be a responsible citizen. My dream is to see our future generations reaching space successfully. My other dream is to see crafts manufactured in Uganda – scientific and space related crafts – not commercial space planes.”
When asked what he would tell kids in Uganda if they’re interested in space exploration and research he said, “they should try to become practical. In school guys learn all sorts of things that they can’t execute. They teach physics and how an engine works but then they can’t build one. They should become practically and build their expertise with their hands – not recording notes in books but learning practically and then they’ll design projects that are practical.”
Of all the things for which Uganda has gotten attention in the past year – Kony 2012, Ebola, not being Spain – the African Space Research Programme is by far the most inspiring. As Robert Kennedy said, “There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?” This could be Chris Nsamba’s motto as well.
If you’re interested in supporting the ASRP they accept donations by both Paypal and MTN Mobile Money. Chris can be reached at +256 (0) 775 517 1881.
To read the BBC article on the ASRP go to: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/mobile/programmes/from_our_own_correspondent/9573163.stm
If you’d like to visit the African Space Research Programme’s website it can be found here: http://ugandanway.com/asrp/news.php or you can read about them on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uganda_space_program