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Prepare for Lift off
Kenya to revamp San Marco Space Center for satellite launch in June
By Gitonga Njeru | VOL.10 April 2018 ·2018-04-11
 

John Njoroge hopes to be an astronaut when he grows up. The seven-year-old Kenyan boy said that flying must be an exciting job. His influence comes from watching movies and playing video games.

"I want to be either an astronaut or a pilot. My uncle is a pilot and I had the opportunity to be a passenger on one of his domestic flights. My favorite subject in school is science," said Njoroge.

His dreams may one day come true as Kenya will soon have its fully-owned space center in April 2018.

China has partnered with Kenya in a bid to upgrade and renovate Kenya's San Marco Space Center, previously known as the Luigi Broglio Space Center, located off the Kenyan coastline in Ngomeni hills near Malindi. Economists estimate the upgrade will cost $150-400 million.

In a brief interview before traveling to London in February, Kenya's Cabinet Secretary for National Treasury Henry Rotich confirmed that the funds are readily available for the renovation.

"Initial funds are between $150 and $400 million. It may go higher with time as labor and purchase costs continue to change. China has offered this amount. We cannot rule out collaborations with China in our space programs. That will automatically happen with time," said Rotich.

Kenya is expected to take full ownership from Italy of the Italian built and managed San Marco facility, which was constructed in 1960.

The decision to partner with China comes at a time when the country is set to launch its first unmanned space flight by the end of June this year. The flight will carry an earth observation satellite which will study the planet's orbital systems, along with other research and development including environmental and agricultural issues like how to deal with drought.

Kenya's position on the equator gives it a great advantage to conduct these important studies.

June launch

"The space launch will be the first independent launch by Kenya. So we expect many economic and scientific benefits. With a space program already in place, the move should be easy, but certain measures should be taken to ensure maximum economic benefits for the country," said Wilbur Ottichillo, Kenya's Governor of Vihiga County. Ottichillo, trained in space science, is a pioneer of Kenya's national space policy and strategy and one of the country's foremost architects of the proposed launch.

He also chaired the parliamentary committee that set up the Kenya Space Agency (KENSA), which leads the Kenya Space Program and encourages interest and development in the sector.

"The Italian owned and operated San Marco Space Center in Malindi has conducted 28 space launches since 1983," said Ottichillo, adding that he hopes that Kenya and China will be equal partners in their future space explorations.

"As a matter of fact, we have space scientists in Kenya who have been trained in China and the United States," said Ottichillo.

He confirmed the launch will take place in Kenya in June, saying that the average cost of such a launch is between $100 million and $150 million.

The launch will be managed by the country's military known as the Kenya Defense Forces, which the United Nations ranks as one of the top 20 most powerful militaries in the world.

Of the 28 previously launched space missions, six in 2016, all were under the supervision of the Italian Space Agency. Kenyan scientists partnered in previous launches but in junior roles.

Full ownership

"A draft paper that was approved in early 2016, titled The Kenya Space Policy and Strategy Draft Paper, paves the way for this vital move," said Ottichillo.

He explained that the space program, which already has four other scheduled launches planned up to June next year, saw the need to take over full ownership of the San Marco Space Center. Ottichillo sat in many parliamentary committees that spearheaded this move.

He noted that there is great importance to merge all space programs into one and make them fully Kenyan. This, he explained, will make the country's space program wholly independent so as to also reap great economic benefits.

KENSA, established in 2017, is part of the country's space program that will own the space center.

At the same time, the country is set to build a second space center that will merge with the current center under the space program. A site on the Coastal Region has already been identified for the planned construction set to begin this year.

"For us to industrialize as a country, we have to be innovative. Space exploration and research will solve our current prevailing problems such as drought and insecurity," said Rotich.

Benefits of satellites

Nickolas Kimani, a Kenyan legal expert on policy issues with a background in environmental and natural resources issues, said satellites can help with space tourism, land use monitoring and mapping, meaning the economy will progress in the long term.

"Some space technologies could also be used to facilitate urban development, and surveillance for climate change such as flooding, so it could influence in better ways of addressing food security," he said.

Another expert on policy implementation confirmed that the country has already adhered to international treaties and conventions.

David Kikaya, who once served as Kenya's Representative to United Nations Human Settlements Program and has links to several international think tanks, said it's time for Kenya and Africa to explore space benefits. He welcomed the launch.

"The Outer Space Treaty [an international treaty that forms the basis of international space law] governs the use of outer space by nations [and] allows Kenya to make such a move. This treaty enables space to be used for peaceful purposes. Kenya's decision will encourage South-South cooperation in science exploration," said Kikaya.

He added that important data on agriculture and demographics will be collected with an effective space program in place.

Speaking about the cost of the launch, Germano Mwabu, Professor of Economics at the University of Nairobi and a World Bank Consultant for Africa, said it is a small percentage of Kenya's gross domestic product (GDP).

"Our GDP current stands at $70 billion. It [the satellite launch] will bring more returns in future, though gains may not be felt instantly," he said.

Currently, Kenya has included this launch as part of its agenda on a draft paper to industrialize by 2030. The Vision 2030 draft paper was launched almost eight years ago by former President Mwai Kibaki.

Among some of the issues in this sector that the government is considering is the establishment of a local academy to train future space scientists, which will encourage people to join the sector.

Other sub-Saharan African countries with advanced space programs include Nigeria, South Africa, Angola, Ghana and Ethiopia, according to the United Nations Development Program.

(Reporting from Kenya)

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