Los Angeles Times

Friday, January 1, 1999

Sky's the Limit After Apartheid
Upcoming launch at Vandenberg AFB of first satellite made in Africa raises sights of South Africa's young black students. It also underscores how far they have to go to catch up with technology.
By DEAN E. MURPHY, Times Staff Writer


STELLENBOSCH, South Africa--It looks like a small refrigerator that had an ugly fall from a delivery truck. Visitors to the science laboratory at the university here can barely conceal their disappointment.
"A lot of the kids think it should look different and be something gigantic," engineering student Jan-Albert Koekemoer said. "Once it is in space, though, it won't matter."
The high-tech aluminum cube, designed and built by students at the University of Stellenbosch near Cape Town, may not look the part, but it is about to make space history.
As Africa's first homemade satellite, it is scheduled to be launched Jan. 8 aboard a U.S. Air Force rocket at Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc.
Nearly 10 years in the making, the satellite carries the unspoken dreams of a continent of budding scientists, who until now had no prospect of wishing upon an African star.
Of the multitude of satellites now serving businesses, governments and telecommunication companies from Cairo to Cape Town, none boasts the "Made in Africa" label, according to the U.N. Office for Outer Space Affairs.
In South Africa, where science and technology had long been the domain of whites and even used as a tool of oppression, officials say the Stellenbosch craft holds special promise.
Conceived during the apartheid era of racial segregation, the space project is now helping to bridge the black-white divide. It still reflects the pride of its white engineers, but it also carries the new aspirations of black schoolchildren who for years were turned away from white-dominated technical fields.
"We view it really as a start," said John Schumacher, associate administrator at NASA, which is paying $4.5 million to launch the satellite as part of a U.S.-South African effort to draw this newly democratic nation into the world's scientific community. "We hope our activities in cooperation with South Africa grow and help them."
The tiny spacecraft--technically known as a micro-satellite because of its dimensions--is modest by international standards.
Its commercial purposes are limited to providing high-resolution photographs of South African vegetation and carrying gravitational experiments for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.
In about five years, its batteries will run dry and it will become another piece of space junk.
In South Africa, however, the 132-pound tangle of wires, computer boards and 11 metal trays is a one-of-a-kind inspiration for a generation of blacks no longer officially restricted to earthly pursuits.
As next week's launch symbolizes, the sky is becoming the limit for ambitious young South Africans.
"I would like to go to the moon," said Lebogang Ramokone, a 13-year-old primary school pupil in Alexandra, a poor black township near Johannesburg. "I am positive about it. I will go to university and become a scientist and then go to the moon."

'Everything Is Changing'

The determined pronouncement, offered in a dingy classroom overlooking a settlement of tin shacks and a courtyard reeking of urine, is something Lebogang's parents would never have contemplated. Her mother, a cashier for a shop in a posh white suburb, and her father, an auto mechanic, hold jobs that were prized under apartheid.
For their daughter with the sparkling eyes and neatly pressed skirt, those aspirations are outdated. Last month, she made a burglar alarm from a circuit board donated by a cellular telephone company as part of the satellite project's educational outreach program. Lebogang boasted that she even did her own soldering and showed off the burns on her fingertips.
"Everything is changing in the classroom since the abolition of apartheid," said Solly Maile, Lebogang's teacher at the Skeen Primary School, where the walls of chipped paint are speckled with flashcards that read "astronaut," "moon," "spacesuits," "rockets" and "scientists."
Lebogang and her classmates have never seen the South African satellite, which was shipped several weeks ago to California along with 700 pounds of support equipment. They have never been to Stellenbosch, a conservative, mostly white university town almost 800 miles southwest of Alexandra.
If all goes according to plan, nonetheless, they and tens of thousands of other children from disadvantaged communities will be the main beneficiaries of the country's long-awaited initiation to space.
Lebogang may not visit the moon any time soon, educators here say, but her passion for science will not be squandered.
The 2-year-old outreach program, organized by the university and several of the satellite's corporate sponsors, is introducing instruction in science and technology to schools in poor neighborhoods across South Africa.
In many South African classrooms, students have never worked with a Bunsen burner or Pyrex beaker, let alone the transistors and other electronic gadgets now crossing many of their desks. Some of them do not even have electricity in their homes and lack the simple understanding of the link between an electric light and a switch.
About 25,000 students have already received electronics instruction, which aims to overcome deeply ingrained fears about technical subjects.
Meanwhile, hundreds of teachers, also without basic science skills, have been enrolled in crash training courses.
"The idea is to get kids interested in technology at an age when they can do something with that interest," said Garth Milne, a Stellenbosch professor of electrical engineering who heads the satellite project.
The bid to use the satellite project as a starting point for improving primary school instruction came late.
The satellite, first contemplated in the late 1980s, was intended mainly as a practical exercise for graduate students in the university's engineering department, whose members are for the most part white and male. About 100 Stellenbosch graduates have participated in its design, construction and maintenance.
Eventually, it was decided that the spacecraft would carry simple electronic experiments built by high school students. Invitations went out to science teachers at 1,500 schools, both black and white. Only four replied.
"Most people just don't understand electronics," said Meri Williams, a 16-year-old student at Rhenish Girls High School in Stellenbosch, one of the mainly white institutions that responded to the call for experiments.
The Rhenish girls built two small radio transmitters, one covered and the other exposed, to test the effect of radiation on electronic devices. The other school experiments will measure the frequency of meteorite strikes, the temperature in space and vibration levels aboard the satellite.
Schoolchildren will also be able to transmit short radio messages to space, which will be echoed back to Earth.

Initial Slow Response Was Surprising

Ettienne Botha, who manages Stellenbosch's educational outreach program, said the initial lackluster response from schools came as a shock to university officials.
Other educators involved in promoting science in primary schools were less surprised. The problem, they say, is not motivation among students but inadequate instruction and preparation.
"We have [scholarships] available for black students to study engineering, but we don't have enough candidates to take them up because they don't qualify," said David Kramer, who heads Protec, a nonprofit group that has trained disadvantaged students in technological careers since 1982. "The impression given to black kids is that you have to be immortal to succeed at maths and sciences."
Wayne McDonald, who heads satellite operations for Telkom, the South African telephone company, said the legacy of apartheid has left the country so technologically shortchanged that Telkom has trouble finding people to operate rudimentary communications equipment that links South Africa to rented foreign satellites.
Under apartheid, much high-tech scientific work fell under the umbrella of the military, which was concerned with controlling the majority black population, not advancing its technical skills.
Recent hearings by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated crimes and abuses of the apartheid era, revealed a litany of sinister scientific and medical experiments developed by military researchers to perpetuate white-minority rule.
Most of the technical know-how used in the Stellenbosch satellite, known as SUNSAT, also had its origins in the apartheid-era military.
But it is the future, not the past, that has South Africans enthused about SUNSAT, says Errol Tyobeka of the government's Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology.
Tyobeka, who heads the department's public science program, said universities such as Stellenbosch cannot rewrite the country's racist history, but they can redirect their efforts to reflect a more racially equitable South Africa.
As such, Tyobeka said, the Stellenbosch satellite project has become a model of transition.
"It is an example of something that comes from the past and is now being used to serve the new values of our society," Tyobeka said. "Attitudes have changed, and SUNSAT is now benefiting the larger population."
Even so, the task of turning South Africa into a technologically aware society remains gigantic.
In a recent international survey of math and science education, South Africa placed last among 46 countries. Of graduating high school students, one in 20 meets the minimum requirements to pursue technological studies in college.
Students at two Alexandra schools that recently enrolled in the SUNSAT outreach program appeared mystified when asked simple questions about satellites. Some did not even know what a satellite is.
Maile, the Alexandra teacher, said attendance has never been better since the school introduced the SUNSAT electronics curriculum.
Yet no one should expect miracles, he warned. Teachers are moving slowly. Maybe next year they will talk about the connection between basic electronics and the orbiting SUNSAT spacecraft.
"At this point," he said, "we felt it might confuse them."

Copyright 1999 Los Angeles Times. All Rights Reserved

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