ABUJA — Nigeria’s space program is reputed to be one of Africa’s largest, with three satellites in orbit and an ambitious plan to send the first African astronaut into space by 2015. Critics say space dreams are a waste of money in a country wracked by poverty, insecurity and environmental disasters. But space officials say even if the program is in its beginning stages, it is already helping to address some of these problems.
The Nigerian space agency complex is as ambitious and seemingly as impossible as the program itself. On 200 hectares of land, a museum and a planetarium are being built along with a complex for visiting scientists and a new operations building.
But not all of these building projects are funded, and very little construction appears to be going on.
Inside the main building everything is tinted green from the colored glass ceiling and it feels a bit like another planet. With statues of rockets and satellites decorating the lobby, it is easy to see why officials here are so excited.
The agency is in touch with its three satellites in orbit, including NigeriaSat-X launched in 2011. Center for Satellite Technology Development director Spencer Ojogba Onuh says they are particularly proud of NigeriaSat-X, which was built in Britain.
“The NigeriaSat-X was completely designed and manufactured using Surrey Satellite Technology equipment by Nigerian engineers and scientists,” said Onuh.
Some locals say space travel is a luxury they cannot afford in Nigeria, where most people live in abject poverty and nobody has consistent electricity.
But National Space Research and Development Agency spokesperson, Felix Ale, says satellite imagery is already helping the country in poverty alleviation, security and development.
“The Nigerian satellites have really assisted in a lot of application areas," said Ale. "It has been used in the area of disaster monitoring and in the area of agriculture.”
He says satellite imagery helped emergency services respond to floods that killed hundreds of people and displaced millions of others last summer.
Ale says another goal of the Nigerian space program is to send a Nigerian astronaut into space by 2015, which is still in the planning phase. But as far-fetched as it sounds, he says space programs are all about big dreams.
“I want to tell the world that the Nigerian space program is a success story. It is a new song to sing about this country," stated Ale. "It is again a re-affirmation that things can work in this part of the world. We have the commitment, we have the zeal.”
Officials say if they can send an African astronaut into space it will encourage health research on diseases that have a large impact on the continent, like malaria and sickle cell anemia.
Back in the green lobby, Ale shows off one satellite picture that he says demonstrates the destruction of the Niger Delta, which Amnesty International says has suffered an Exxon Valdez-level oil spill every year for decades.
In an upstairs conference room officials give a lecture to other civil servants, because despite their enthusiasm the space program is widely unknown to Nigerians. They say Nigeria began space research in the 1950s, but projects were repeatedly side-lined until 1999 when the national space agency was established. They say by 2028 they hope to have made-in-Nigeria satellites orbiting the earth.