One South African non-profit initiative has launched a crowdfunding campaign with the ambitious goal to raise money to send the first African spacecraft to the Moon to inspire next generations to rise from poverty through education and science.
The venture, backed by the University of Cape Town (UCT), the South African Space Association and the Cape Town Science Centre, has opted for an unusually open approach to the mission design, trying to involve the public from the earliest stages.
“The motivation behind the project is quite simple,” said Jonathan Weltman, CEO of the Foundation for Space Development of South Africa and the Africa2Moon project administrator.
“We believe that the best solution for Africa is to get educated. Increasing education means increasing opportunity and increasing opportunity means improving economic empowerment and that’s how civilisation can pull itself out of a difficult situation.”
However, Weltman admitted, to spark the will and interest to study complex STEM subjects, the incentive has to be quite powerful – like going to the Moon.
“The first objective is to get to the Moon and do something significant and by doing that, we can actually achieve a further two objectives that are very important for the Foundation – and these objectives are inspiration and education,” he explained.
“The plan is to do the outreach by making very specific elements of the mission open to the public – things like naming of the mission, letting students decide on some of the scientific elements, having engineering and technology labs from African universities contributing to the payload and experiments."
The foundation gave itself until January 2015 to raise $150,000 (£96,000) for a feasibility study and accompanying outreach campaign.
The feasibility study, to be led by Professor Peter Martinez from the UCT’s Space Lab, will determine whether Africa’s maiden lunar attempt will be a lander or an orbiter and what type of scientific payload it will carry.
“There is no doubt that we do have the engineering capability to build the payload here in Africa,” Weltman said. “We have companies here that build satellites and space payloads. But we may need to determine the exact scientific objectives and whether we can actually launch that from Africa or whether we would have to go somewhere else.”
One-quarter of the initial feasibility study phase budget will be dedicated to outreach activities with the foundation having committed to launch at least six outreach programmes at universities across Africa.
As Weltman said, there is no need to wait for five years to start spreading the word when the African youth can draw inspiration from the project right from its onset.
The feasibility study will take place between January and November 2015, by which time the team wants to have a firmer idea about the project’s outcome.
“The step after that will be the mission plan and that will produce the exact deadline date,” Weltman said.
“Once the mission is operational, the intention would be to provide a video-feed that could be distributed through the Internet directly to schools in Africa and we hope that will have a profound effect on exciting, motivating and inspiring school kids to carry on with their education, to pursue scientific knowledge and scientific career to empower the continent as a whole.”
Moon exploration is currently experiencing a revival of interest. In December last year, China has landed a small rover named Yutu on the Moon, becoming only the third nation in history to soft-land a spacecraft on the lunar surface. The first two were the USA and USSR.
The Google-sponsored Lunar X Prize is seeking the first privately funded spacecraft to land on the Moon and travel across a section of its surface while streaming data back to Earth.
Eighteen teams from all over the world are currently in the running, with the deadline set for end of December 2015. The winner will bag a $20m award with the runner up receiving $5m.