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July 22, 2013

Uganda’s One-Man Space Program Sparks Cosmic Dreams

by Hilary Heuler

As Ghana grabbed headlines with its first tiny satellite in May, one determined scientist in Uganda is working hard to get his country into the space race as well. But Chris Nsamba is facing more than just technical challenges.
 
Lawrence Okello could tell that something unusual was going on. But when he first ventured over to his neighbor’s backyard in Kampala, Uganda, he could hardly believe his eyes.
 
“I was so shocked. I couldn’t believe that in Uganda, we can have a kind of achievement so impressive,” he said.
 
Okello’s neighbor, Chris Nsamba, is head of the African Space Research Program, an organization he founded in 2009 after studying astronomy in the United States. But armed with nothing more than a team of student volunteers, and working from his mother’s backyard, the 28-year-old Nsamba has set out to build and launch Uganda’s first space observer.
 
​​​​Neighbors like Okello have been eagerly watching the probe take shape.
 
“There is a small project I saw him making. He called it a space observer," he said. "I heard him saying it’s going to capture a picture of Uganda from space. He showed me that it’s going to work. I saw it responding to the GPS. They are just preparing to launch it, but I know it will fly. It will fly.”
 
About the size and shape of a beach ball, the probe is equipped with solar panels and a camera. On its maiden voyage, Nsamba plans to send it up with a passenger as well - a live rat.
 
“The reason why we called it observer is because it has a camera on it, so it can take pictures and videos, and it can send live data back to our control center. So it can observe space," he said. "Two, we are using it to check out our skills of keeping something alive in space.”
 
Aside from a grant from Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, Nsamba and his team have had to rely entirely on private donations from well-wishers in Uganda and abroad.  Nsamba says he also doesn’t have a technical team to assist with the finer points of aerospace engineering.
 
“I developed it myself. No one is involved, just me." he said. "The other people are my students. I’m training them on how to develop such projects. However, they are students, they are still learning. I don’t acquire any skills from them. They are the ones acquiring skills from me.”
 
The launch itself would involve a helium weather balloon to carry the probe up to 120,000 feet, at which point thrusters would kick in.
 
Nsamba claims he and his team have been working up to 18 hours a day on the project. And, he says, the probe is functional, and thrusters have been tested and the rocket fuel is ready. The Ugandan president has even given permission to launch the observer, Nsamba says, but wants to inspect it himself first.
 
It is a far cry from NASA.  But despite skepticism in the international media, many Ugandans see potential in Nsamba’s passion, and take pride in having a space program of their own.
 
Professor Florence D’ujanga, head of the physics department at Kampala’s Makarere University, thinks Nsamba’s efforts should not be dismissed.
 
“Scientists start like that usually, and people usually push them off," D’ujanga said. "They usually started small. Like Newton was looking for the apple, the falling of the apple, and then gravity. And I’m sure at that time, when he talked about it, people sort of brushed it aside. So with this young man, I think we better give him a chance.”
 
For science to develop, she says, you have to start somewhere.