South African space agency clarifies plans to train two female astronauts in two years

The South African National Space Agency (Sansa) has diplomatically corrected a statement issued by the Russian embassy on Sunday announcing South Africa’s plans to train two female astronauts.

According to the Russian Embassy in South Africa’s initial statement, Sansa CEO Humbulani Mudau said South Africa hopes to send two female astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) within the next two years.

It said Mudau announced the plan as part of the grand opening of a joint project between Roscosmos and Sansa — a Russian space debris detection centre in South Africa.

The facility’s full name is the Russian Optical and Electronic Complex for Detection and Measurement of the Movement Parameters of Space Debris.

South African space scientists and industry experts were quick to express disbelief at the announcement.

Training astronauts and cosmonauts takes years and there had been no call for candidates, no shortlisting, and no indication of what research South Africa’s spacewomen would be doing on the ISS.

Mark Shuttleworth — the first South African and first African in space — spent a year training for an eight-day trip to the International Space Station, TechRepublic reported in 2017.

He spent eight months at Star City in Russia, where he learned how to pilot the Soyuz spacecraft that would carry them to the space station. He also had to learn Russian.

Despite reportedly paying $20 million for a trip as a “space tourist”, Shuttleworth was still required to conduct experiments to be allowed on the ISS.

MyBroadband contacted Sansa for comment, and the space agency responded by stating that training South African astronauts is still just an ambition and that there are no firm plans for such a mission.

“As part of the discussion between partners, aspects of collaboration in various sectors of space science and technology were explored,” it said.

“Sansa does acknowledge aspirations for having (a) South African astronaut(s) trained and contributing to global space exploration for the benefit of humanity amongst other space missions and projects that are aimed at positively impacting life on Earth.”

Sansa said it appreciates the interest and excitement the initial report generated among South African citizens.

“We are still years away from the realisation of this incredible opportunity,” Mudau stated.

He said Sansa is committed to formalising plans with its space partners in the near future.

“We will be sure to make the announcement a priority to inspire and excite the future generations of Afronauts to take their place in global space.”

Sansa said it is already contributing to human space travel through partnerships in developing the next Deep Space Network supporting manned and unmanned space exploration missions.

It said the construction of the infrastructure to be used commenced in Matjiesfontein, Western Cape and will be complete in 2025.

“Other exciting collaborative projects in space are being explored with the BRICS space partners in meetings at Sansa in Hermanus this week,” the space agency said.

“We value and encourage these partnerships to be able to contribute meaningfully to global knowledge about life on our planet as well as understanding the universe.”

“More about the cooperative BRICS space projects will be shared following the conclusion of the briefings from the relevant space agencies.”

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South African space agency clarifies plans to train two female astronauts in two years