Academic journal article Strategic Review for Southern Africa

South Africa's Space Policy and Interests: A New Dawn or a Black Hole?

Academic journal article Strategic Review for Southern Africa

South Africa's Space Policy and Interests: A New Dawn or a Black Hole?

Article excerpt


Several major developments in 2009 contributed to South Africa's 180 year involvement in space science and technology. These include the release of the South African National Space Policy; the establishment of a South African National Space Agency; and the launch of the first government-owned satellite. This article contextualises South Africa's space ambitions within the international politics of Outer Space. It proceeds with an overview of the country's space facilities, programmes, policies and institutions, and with a discussion of South Africa's predominantly functionalist and symbolic space diplomacy. The article concludes with some caveats pertaining to the implementation of South Africa's ambitious National Space Policy, and the expansion of its space interests in a competitive global environment.


Four important space-related events took place in South Africa in 2009, namely it celebrated the 180th anniversary of astronomy in the country; the South African government released its National Space Policy in March 2009; the National Space Agency is to be established in terms of the South African National Space Agency Act (Act 36 of 2008); and the country's first government-built satellite, Sumbandila-SAT, was launched. These events and developments are illustrative of South Africa's space ambitions. As an analysis of South Africa's space policy and interests the purpose of this article is fourfold, namely to provide an historical background to space science and technology in South Africa; to outline the country's space facilities, programmes and policies; to analyse its space diplomacy; and to assess the international significance of the country's space ambitions.


In 1685, 76 years after Galileo's first astronomical observations, a Jesuit priest en route to Siam (Thailand), Father Guy Tachard, established a temporary observatory in what is now known as Cape Town. In 1751, France's Royal Academy of Sciences sent the Abbe Nicolas-Louis de La Caille to the Cape where he set up an observatory in what is now Strand Street, Cape Town. Between 1751 and 1753, De La Caille charted the positions of almost 10 000 stars, catalogued 42 nebulas, discovered 14 new constellations and is today widely regarded as the founder of modern Southern Hemisphere astronomy. (1)

In 1820, the British Admiralty agreed to construct an observatory at the Cape, which was completed in 1829 and run by the Cambridge mathematician and clergyman, Reverend Fearon Fallows. Fallows' assistant and wife, Mary Ann Fallows, who discovered a comet in the constellation of Octans, is regarded as South Africa's first female astronomical observer.

Fallows' successor, Thomas Henderson, compiled a catalogue of the stars of the Southern Hemisphere and, at the time, made the most accurate calculation of the distance between the Earth and the Moon. Henderson was succeeded by Thomas Maclear and Sir John Herschel, both of whom made significant contributions. Maclear founded geodetic surveys in South Africa and Herschel catalogued 1 707 clusters and nebulae, and more than 2 000 binary stars. Since 1879, Herschel's successor, David Gill produced a photographic survey of the Southern Skies which was published as Carte du Ciel (Map of the Heavens) and the Cape Photographic Durch-musterung (catalogue). (2)

During the 1900s, scientific exploration was interrupted by the South African War, and World War I and II. From the middle of the 20th century, Cold War political and scientific imperatives provided new impetus to South Africa's involvement in Outer Space. In 1958, merely a few months after the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik, South Africa's first satellite tracking facility near Johannesburg--funded by the United States (US) space agency, NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration)--became operational. In 1961 it was moved to Hartebeesthoek, west of Pretoria and renamed the Deep Space Implementation Facility. …

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