“ People ask me whether this money should be spent feeding starving children in Africa instead of space exploration?” this comment was made by one of the speakers at a talk yesterday on Astronomical Awesomeness: Why do we ask why. Her remark really did rile me for two reasons. NASA spent a staggering 17 billion dollars in 2008 but a trillion was spent by the American Department of Defence some of which no doubt supported wars in the Middle East and Africa. Secondly, I strongly object to the image of Africa as perpetual beggars, however the talk did spark in my mind the question of whether we should care about space exploration especially given trends in the last few years.
A disproportionate amount of money goes to “astronomical” research (pun intended) and to investigating space and time. Construction of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world’s largest high energy particle accelerator located in Europe, cost 9 billion US dollars. The LHC is searching for the “God Particle” which will elucidate how the universe is created. It is undoubtedly the most expensive scientific instrument followed closely by the much awaited Square Kilometer Array (SKA) which will cost close to 2billion dollars to construct and 12 billion to operate. The SKA is a radio telescope which will look back into time to answer questions about the origin of the universe. This is potentially where we as Africans should at least begin to get interested – the SKA may end up in our backyard as South Africa is competing with Australia to host the SKA.
As Africans, we have always had an interest in the sky – the Dogon of Mali were found to have an advanced astronomical knowledge without the use of telescopes. The Bushmen of Namibia have etched stories of our creation on the rocks of Twyfelfontein hundreds of years ago. Certainly South Africa is taking the lead having the first African in space and Nigeria’s attempt to maintain an orbiting satellite should be applauded. Also gratifying are notable astrophysicists like Dr. Hakeem Oluseyi and Ave Kludze, Ghana’s rocketman, an astronautical engineer and strategist for NASA. This may seem small and patchy but it’s a start. A lot more certainly needs to be done starting with updating the Malawian curriculum to reflect 8 planets and not 9.
But when THEY (intentional emphasis) are heavily vested in exploring space and seeking scientific answers to the fundamental question: how the universe was created; answers to which, will have far reaching consequences for mankind – we must care – we should care – we should be kept informed. Of paramount importance is – who is asking the question? What exactly are they asking? And who will take responsibility for the answers?