Nigeria has plans of sending people to space, according to the Minister of Science and Technology, Ogbonnaya Onu. But experts in the Nigerian space industry believe manned space missions are immaterial for the country.
During a keynote address at the 2020 National Convention of the Izzi Old Students Association, Ogbonnaya reportedly said: "We have plans to send people to space. Don't ever think it cannot be done; it may take 20 years, 30 years, but we have that plan." The old students of Izzi High School, Abakaliki, including the minister, held their convention at Ebonyi State University campus in Ishieke—a community in southeastern Nigeria.
The dream of sending Nigerian astronauts to space is not new. In 2016, Ogbonnaya had said Nigeria plans to send an astronaut to space by 2030, and a delegation of the National Space Research and Development Agency (NASDRA) was sent to China to discuss the logistics for what could become the first African manned space mission.
Space is a major asset that Nigeria must be involved in for the purpose of protecting national interests.
Space exploration is a worthy capital-intensive venture Nigeria must undertake. German-born American scientist, Ernst Stuhlinger, has justified why billions of dollars should be spent on space exploration in his impassioned letter to Mary Jucunda, a Zambia-based nun.
Nigerian space experts, however, believe sending astronauts to space is immaterial for Nigeria. The Managing Director of Space in Africa, Temidayo Oniosun, told benjamindada.com: "I think the minister is just trying to score some political points. We are not sending any astronaut to space, it's pointless and we also do not have the technical knowhow or infrastructure."
I think the minister should focus on ensuring the National Space Agency maximise its true potential instead of advancing his political agenda.
Calestous Juma, founder of African Centre for Technology Studies and professor of International Development at Harvard Kennedy School, believed until his death in 2017 that the vision of sending a Nigerian astronaut to space is more important than the outcome.
When the "lofty ambition" was first announced four years ago, Professor Calestous told CNN: "Space walks are probably the least important [part of space exploration]. It is the scientific and technology infrastructure and its linkages to the rest of the economy that matter."
I believe the minister just made a political statement. Nigeria lacks fundamental infrastructure. Most of the TV stations, telecom companies and internet service providers in Nigeria rely on foreign satellites. The focus now should be to put in place those basic infrastructure and ensure that the existing ones are efficiently used.
Last year, Space in Africa asked industry leaders if Africa will ever land a man on the moon. The 10 African space experts that responded to the question, "Will Africa Ever Land on the Moon", noted that it's a moonshot thinking.
Professor Bonaventure Okere, Director of Centre for Basic Space Science, said: "I have been following space programme events in Africa and come to the conclusion that one day an African country will be involved in a space mission. Nigeria has such ambitious plan, and a unit for space mission has been set up in NASRDA."
The Nigerian space agency was established 21 years ago with the overall objective of building Nigeria's indigenous technology in basic space technology and breaking new frontiers through space exploration. It has six development centres and a training centre—CBSS—tasked with the development of researchers' skills and knowledge.
NASRDA launched a 28-year roadmap in 2002, with the aim "to develop, build and launch a Nigerian made satellite from Nigerian soil" by 2030. A year later, Nigeria launched its first satellite, NigeriaSat-1, which was the third satellite launched by an African country. Currently, Nigeria has three satellites in space: NigeriaSat-1, NigeriaSat-2 and NigeriaSat-X. Launched in 2011, NigeriaSat-X was designed and constructed by NASRDA engineers.
Besides government investment in the space industry, private sector participation in the industry is low. The NewSpace Africa Industry Report, which reviewed private and public African companies operating in the space industry, identified four Nigerian companies: Atlantic Factorial Limited, BeepTool Communications, GeoApps Plus Limited (a commercial subsidiary of NASRDA) and the Nigeria Communications Satellite Limited Company. South Africa has 21 companies operating in its space industry.
Space in Africa Managing Director Temidayo told benjamindada.com, "Space activities is still majorly driven by the government in Nigeria, which shouldn't be so. It's the reason why NigComSat is constantly bleeding money and I've personally been calling for its privatisation."
He added that NileSat, an Egyptian company similar to NigComSat, made $145.13 million in profits two years ago. It's also listed on Cairo and Alexandria Stock Exchange. In comparison, NigComSat is wholly owned by the Federal Government and received over $40 million as budget allocation between 2009 and 2019.
By sending astronauts to space in a Nigerian-built rocket, Nigeria could become the first African country to achieve such feat. But the astronauts will be joining 449 people from 40 countries that have been to space. Also, India plans to send a man to space in 2022. In addition to that, 155 people have been shortlisted to participate in the first-leg of the Mars round trip happening in July.