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'Afronaut' Inspires Africans - 2002-04-25

South African Mark Shuttleworth, the first African in space, is on board the Soyuz spacecraft en route to the International Space Station. The venture has captured the imagination and won the pride of his fellow South Africans.

South Africa came to a standstill at 8:26 AM local time as its people tuned their television sets to the launch of the Soyuz spacecraft from the cosmodrome at Baikonur, Kazakhstan bound for the international space station. The focus of their attention was the South African passenger on board, Mark Shuttleworth, or as he is now known, Afronaut.

Mr. Shuttleworth is the world's second so-called space tourist. He has paid an estimated $20 million for the flight. But despite the price tag, the trip will not bankrupt him. In 1999, at the age of 26, he made $600,000 million dollars when he sold his Internet security system to his major U.S. competitor.

In interviews before the launch, South Africa's youngest millionaire emphasized the scientific work he will be doing in space as a proxy for South African scientists. One of his projects entails developing stem cells in weightlessness, but he says the most important experiment for South Africa will be an attempt to crystallize the proteins of HIV. The goal is to gain a greater understanding of the structure of the virus that causes AIDS, thereby contributing to the search for a vaccine or cure.

Mr. Shuttleworth's brother Grant says his insistence that he be allowed to conduct experiments that benefit South Africa almost prevented him from being allowed to participate in the mission.

"He was very demanding and that nearly cost him his trip, but he was set on what he wanted to do and that shows his commitment to his dream that he has for himself and for the rest of the world," he said."

Mr. Shuttleworth launched his Internet security system in 1995, his final year at the University of Cape Town. He ran his business from his parents' garage. At the time he sold it to the U.S. firm VeriSign in 1999 he was employing 60 people and had cornered 40 percent of the international internet security market.

Mr. Shuttleworth now runs a venture company called HBD or Here Be Dragons, a description used by 17th century explorers to indicate uncharted territory on maps. He has also established a non-profit company to promote education in Africa. Its primary campaign at present is to encourage a love of math and science among African students. Its slogan is "hip to be square" and is written as a formula or scientific equation, Hip2B2.

Grant Shuttleworth says his older brother is particularly well suited to encouraging others to be exceptional, to accomplish things that no one has dared before.

"But you have to sit on your own integrity about what you think you can really do and how you can be exceptional in your own life," he said. "And he is good at inspiring people to think about that because it is really about, instead of shying away from chaos, its about stepping into chaos, because that is the most creative place to be."

Apart from his experiments and other duties on board the international space station, Mr. Shuttleworth will spend time on a ham radio communicating with South African students. He told a local television station that aside from fulfilling his dream and doing experiments to benefit South Africa, he hopes his flight as the first African in space will contribute to dispelling widely held negative views about Africa and its people.

"South Africa and Africa are to a certain extent victims of the fact that a lot of the news that gets generated is negative news," he said. "Like it or not that has an impact on the assumptions people make about what is possible for themselves, and the assumptions that other people make about what is possible for the continent. And I am kind of up there, on the rocket, to give the finger to that, and say: guys keep your assumptions, we're going to do it."

When he returns to earth, Mr. Shuttleworth will bring the Soyuz space capsule back to South Africa, where he will take it on a tour of schools in the hope that it will boost his campaign to promote the study of math and science and also inspire young Africans to live their dreams.