Contest winner Mandla Maseko set to become first black African in space


Aspring DJ Mandla Maseko from Mabopane township in Pretoria has been selected to be amongst the next generation of space travellers.

A view of Earth from space

The DJ is among 23 young people who saw off 1m other entrants from around the world to emerge victorious in the Lynx Apollo Space Academy competition. Their prize is to be blasted 62 miles up on a sub-orbital flight aboard a Lynx mark II shuttle in 2015. Tickets for the flight are normally set at US$95,000.

“It’s crazy,” said Maseko, the son of a toolmaker and cleaning supervisor. “It hasn’t really sunk in yet. I’m envious of myself.”

He will be the second South African in space following Mark Shuttleworth, a white entrepreneur and philanthropist who bought a seat on a Russian Soyuz capsule for £12m and spent eight days on board the international space station in 2002.

“I’ll be the first black South African and the first black African to go into space. When you think of the firsts, the first black presidents – Barack Obama, Nelson Mandela – just to know your name will be written with those people is unbelievable.”

The young Maseko’s imagination was fired by the science fiction series Star Trek and films such as Armageddon and Apollo 13. “I thought, that looks fun. No matter what life throws at you, you can use it and come out on top. If you get lemons, you must make lemon juice.”

Maseko is aware of his own symbolism nearly two decades after the dismantling of racial apartheid. “I’m a township boy and I’m doing this for the typical township boy who wasn’t born with a silver spoon,” he said.

“I’m not trying to make this a race thing but us blacks grew up dreaming to a certain stage. You dreamed of being a policeman or a lawyer but you knew you won’t get as far as pilot or astronaut. Then I went to space camp and I thought, I can actually be an astronaut.”

Mandla had enrolled as a part-time civil engineering student but had to drop out due to lack of funds. Then in 2013 he spotted an advert for a chance to go into space

In the first week of December Mandla and two other hopefuls from South Africa Dean Roddan and Haroon Osman (from Johannesburg) travelled to the US to join more than 100 international contestants at a space camp in Orlando, Florida. The challenges included assault courses, skydiving, air combat and G-force training, building and launching a rocket, and a written aptitude test. The judges included the astronaut Buzz Aldrin.

Africa has growing space ambitions: the majority of the Square Kilometre Array, the world’s biggest and most powerful radio telescope, will be spread across South Africa and eight other countries on the continent.

Another of the 21 candidates selected was Omar Samra, who will be the first Egyptian in space. “Tonight was one of those epic moments in a man’s life. When you get the privilege to go to a place where few have,” said Samra on his official Facebook account.

Subscribe to the Africa Research Bulletin today