MANAGEMENT: Using outer space to give SA science a lift
THERE is a good reason physicist Dr Sandile Malinga has to get up early in the morning. How else could the head of the new South African National Space Agency (Sansa), father of three and academic supervisor fit it all in?
"It's a very full life," he says at his new office at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).
The corridors smell of carpet glue and recently unpacked boxes are stacked up in a corner. "Setting up an entity is not an easy job," he says.
Malinga was permanently appointed CEO of Sansa this year, having previously been the MD at the Hermanus Magnetic Observatory. But, at heart, Malinga is still a scientist.
"I've always wanted to do science. I like maths, I like physics. I've always liked things that can challenge me and stretch my thinking a bit."
Setting up Sansa is proving to be a challenge: "You have to deal with operational issues. How are people going to be paid? Will the pay slip be printed? Those simple things that people take for granted," he says, adding Sansa's personnel have migrated from "well-oiled entities such as the CSIR and the National Research Foundation" to a new organisation trying to find its feet. But there are more difficult problems to address: "It's difficult to bring together entities of different cultures - how they do things, what's important to them. The mandate of Sansa is slightly different to their old mandates." He cites the Satellite Application Centre, which is now called Sansa Space Operations. It was a commercial entity, but "now you're saying: collect the data, find a user and give it to them for free".
"It's not that people are opposed to it, but it's not something that's natural. They've been driven from their bonuses . they were incentivised by how much money they could make."
Sansa does run commercial operations, but that is not its main mandate. Sansa charges other space entities for launch support - helping to track and observe a satellite after it has been launched.
However, when it comes to data received from satellites, "by and large, we should be giving that data away, to government departments, municipalities, and government institutions like the CSIR", Malinga says.
"Where we could ask for money is where we go beyond just the basic provision of an image. Where we add value (such as looking for a specific resource, or at a specific wavelength), we could charge for those. The motive is not for us to make money. It's for us to create a platform for others to do what they do best, whether it's water affairs, or agriculture."
Malinga talks about skills capacity in SA and draws graphs in the air to plot the fluctuations in skilled South Africans over time. H e is still supervising students - a PhD student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, where he lectured from 2002 to 2007, and a master's student at Fort Hare. However, "this is probably the last batch of students I'll be supervising", mainly because of his responsibilities at Sansa.
While its mandate in general eschews commercial interests, funding is a problem. In her budget this year, Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor allocated the space agency R93m, but this was only to set it up, not for programmes.
"We are now looking for programmatic support. We have a national space strategy, which is overarching at a high level. But we need to say what the national space programme is. What are we doing? For example, Nasa is very clear: they're going to Mars. This is when they'll get there and this is how they need to get there, this is what they have to have."
Last week, a group of experts met to start plotting SA's space programme. "What will our space programme be in 2030? What system will we have? What technologies will we have? What people will we have? What programmes will we be running at the time, and what services?"
Malinga hopes to have a comprehensive 10- to 20-year programme ready by June, "one everyone will work towards, and we'll go to government and say 'please fund this'."
While Sansa does not have a comprehensive programme yet, there are many ideas , such as building satellites in SA.
Some quarters argue SA is not ready and has neither the money nor the competitiveness to build them.
Malinga says, however, that "we'd develop our own satellites for a number of reasons. Developing technologies and critical skills are the primary reasons. There are others , such as independence. If you want to go into space, you want independence to do your own thing without having to tell someone exactly what."
But finding skilled people remains the sticking point for many of Sansa's plans: "That's the challenge . The skills aren't there, and we need to train people. We advertise positions and we can't find people."
Moreover, he considers space science an important way to upskill South Africans. "It's central to the business of the country - space is a natural innovation driver. It forces you to break away from the normal.. I mean, the International Space Station, to build that kind of gigantic thing up there, you have to build things differently. It's not like you're constructing it here in my office. That's easy. So here is this natural innovation we can use as a tool for training and skills in different areas."
But, he says, these skills are not confined to space because, in creating these extraordinary materials and technologies, there are other fields in which they are needed.
"Satellites are exposed to radiation, so the material has to withstand that. At the same time, they must be very light because the launch is cost per mass. It has to have good thermal dynamics. And it can't use a lot of energy otherwise it won't survive up there."
Sansa has a staff complement of 132, which Malinga hopes to grow to 300-500 in the next 20 years. Consequently, Sansa will not be able to absorb all the people it trains.
"We believe we can use this as a vehicle to create skills that go beyond our needs because the absorptive capacity of Sansa is limited, so you want people who can go and work for the car industry, or mining, or go somewhere else to create jobs."
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