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(Aero)space odyssey: The quest to create Africa’s future astronauts, engineers, aeronautic entrepreneurs

Dr Scott Firsing, an American and permanent resident of South Africa is an Adjunct Research Fellow at Monash University, South Africa where he previously served as a Senior Lecturer and Head of the International Studies Department.He is also a current research fellow at the Institute of Global Dialogue based at UNISA. Scott's other current appointments include Director of the North American International School (NAIS) in Pretoria and Director of Public Engagement at the Aerospace Leadership Academy. The founder of the African NGO Young People in International Affairs, Scott is a former employee of the United Nations, Department for Disarmament Affairs, and a former Bradlow Fellow at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA).

The birth of the new Aerospace Leadership Academy in South Africa is the story of a shared dream and the passion for education. It is also a story about why aviation and aerospace are so important to Africa, and a plea to South Africans to support science, technology, engineering and mathematics for the sake of the future. This is how the vision became a reality, and how we forged a relationship with a US university that is on the cutting edge of aeronautics.

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Photo: Sun rising on the main part of the Aerospace Leadership Academy campus

The world is a fast-paced, ever-changing beast. There are always obstacles but technology helps us overcome many of these challenges. Some of the major tasks we face as a species are to build better medical diagnostic tools, to advance artificial intelligence, to preserve our planet’s biodiversity, to map our oceans, and to develop cleaner aviation fuels and energy, and better ways to store them, among many others.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, according to Lao Tzu. Many people have already taken their first step to combat some of these challenges, and in today’s world, whether it is starting a business or buying a car, the first step is usually to do your homework. Nowadays even this is becoming more difficult due to the multitude and magnitude of information available and how quickly things advance. This is all too apparent in the high tech industries, but also in some of the world’s oldest and largest professions such as education.

Enter two American males, Dr Ken Baucom and I, both permanent residents of South Africa and lovers of both countries. We share an additional passion for education and youth. In fact, we share a lot of similarities, which you might not know based on looking at us. Ken is 76 years of age and I am 32.

Ken arrived in South Africa 46 years ago to work for the Institute for Race Relations. Over the years he changed jobs, including positions like the global education manager for De Beers and Anglo American. I am a new ‘South African’, having only arrived in 2005. I was not brought here by an institute, but rather by a beautiful, blonde South African woman whom I married. Marrying her and moving here were the two best decisions I ever made.

Ken and I met in 2006 and always talked about starting an American curriculum military boarding high school for a variety of reasons. Ken’s two sons, both born in South Africa, attended military boarding high schools in the US. Both turned out to be very successful. Ken attributes a lot of this to the values entrenched in them during those years.

I, on the other hand, have always loved aviation and space, and have worked in the South African defence industry. These reasons, combined with shared goals such as improving our country’s maths and science education and combatting perceived behavioural ‘problems’ associated with the younger generation, like a lack of discipline, eventually pushed us to turn our dream into a reality.

First step. Location, location, location. Luckily, this was predetermined because we had our campus already, a beautiful 88ha stretch in Hekpoort, Gauteng in the valley along the Magaliesburg Mountain range. An absolute gem of a property Ken bought more than 30 years ago when it was still an old peach farm.

Next step, as mentioned earlier, research. We did what every logical person does and jumped on to the Internet. This was followed by a tour of several military schools in the southeastern part of America. There is something about being there and speaking to the faculty and students that you just can’t get from reading websites.

Since that initial visit to the US, we have visited dozens of schools, universities and companies in both there and in South Africa, trying to figure what we felt was the right equation for a top educational high school with a military and science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM) element not only in South Africa, but on the continent and the world.

The project just kept getting more and more exciting. There was the component of building classrooms and hostels, which many males love. Then there was curriculum and partnership development, which I eat up like a koeksister with a cup of coffee.

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Photo: AERLA observatory with girls’ dormitory in the background

Slowly the ball began to roll. We hosted our first event on sub-orbital flight and space tourism in April 2014 with South Africa’s Tim Nash of Virgin Galactic Unite and Afronaut Mandla Maseko. I spent days and nights sending emails, making phone calls, traveling around for meetings, working on documents and everything in between.

Then one day I received a response from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Most Africans will not be familiar with the university. It is located in a city on the east coast of the State of Florida called Daytona Beach. Daytona is typically known by Americans for being home to Daytona International Speedway, the headquarters of Nascar – the sport were you drive around an oval a few hundred times. Daytona is also home to Bike Week in early March when the streets are filled with thousands of Harley Davidsons.

What many people don’t know is that if you drive on Clyde Morris Boulevard past the Speedway, you will soon reach Daytona Beach International Airport, and Embry-Riddle, which is attached to it.

I made the long trek across the Atlantic to visit Embry-Riddle in June and I can emphatically confirm that their campus is a fascinating place to visit. From dozens of flight simulators and over 60 personally owned aircraft to propulsion labs with jet engines donated by Rolls Royce and a supercomputer, they are simply doing things that most other universities are not doing. For example, they have undergraduate degrees in Unmanned Aerospace Systems Science and Commercial Space Operations, along with graduate degrees in unmanned and autonomous systems engineering.

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Photo: Embry Riddle’s aircraft parked at Daytona Beach International Airport

Now it helps to be only just 50 miles north of Kennedy Space Centre and within close proximity to many contractors situated on Florida’s Space Coast. This explains the overall employment rate for astronomy and astrophysics degree holders at 99%. However, they also have Embry-Riddle Worldwide in order to deliver a quality academic experience with world-class faculty educators via their online campus. They recently developed EagleVision, a virtual classroom, combining the power of web video conferencing and learning management system software to maximise the benefits of synchronous and asynchronous virtual learning environments.

In October, Embry-Riddle Worldwide was named the number one online college and university by College Choice. These rankings were based on data from the National Centre for Educational Statistics, university websites and reputable publications like US News and World Report.

Embry Riddle’s next and most exciting project is their Research Park, or what is being dubbed the Silicon Valley of Aerospace and Aviation. The Park will strengthen and expand partnerships between faculty performing applied research and industry seeking innovative solutions. Planned facilities include wind tunnels; labs for robotics and autonomous systems; radar and communications; multi-scale and large-scale structures; 3D manufacturing and a circuit centre and instrumentation area. There will also be an aircraft hangar with access to the airport, as well as a Business Incubation Unit to encourage and support entrepreneurs by offering unfettered access to all the resources Embry-Riddle has at its disposal.

Embry Riddle’s growth is due to their connections to industry and by hiring only the best faculty. This is no secret. Their professors typically have decades of industry and learning experience that ensures graduates will be better prepared than the competition in the workforce.

All of this combined has earned Embry-Riddle the reputation as the top aerospace and aviation university in the world.

Our Aerospace Leadership Academy in South Africa (AERLA) follows a similar path but with a South African and African element. Our goal is to one day be known as the top aerospace and aviation high school in the world. To do this we are partnering with South African industry leaders like the Paramount Group, government agencies and others to provide a world class experience and education for the most driven and passionate young South Africans and others from around the world. Our teaching staff includes individuals like retired South African Air Force General John Bayne, a fighter pilot, former commander of the 85 combat flying school leading the silver falcons for three years, and finally the director of combat systems for the SAAF before retiring this year.

South Africa has so much capability and experience when it comes to the fields Embry-Riddle specialises in and we cannot afford to let this knowledge disappear. In addition to the best teachers, AERLA has an impressive list of coaches and mentors who have agreed to support cadets in any way they possibly can.

I am proud to report that AERLA and Embry-Riddle are now joining forces. We recently signed an agreement to allow our top cadets in South Africa to take entry-level courses through Embry-Riddle Worldwide’s dual enrolment programme. By working together, we strengthen our shared global commitment to the next generation of STEM scholars, practitioners and leaders.

It is still early days of the ‘dream’, which really only begins on 19 January 2015, when our first cadets arrive at AERLA. Nevertheless, we know it is a dream that will succeed and we will make a real difference in South Africa.

Yesterday AERLA launched the Future High Flyers Contest to award the most driven and passionate young South Africans with four full scholarships and the chance to join our very first group of cadets for the 2015 academic year. They have to argue why they want to join our institution via a 1,000 word essay. More details can be found on our website.

Okay… Who cares? Why is this important to my family, my country, and me?

The aerospace, aviation and related industries are absolutely vital to the future of Africa. Sparking the youth’s interest and strengthening these industries by providing human capital is essential to enable Africa to compete in the global marketplace, maintain a highly skilled workforce, provide the ability to travel safely and securely, and to defend itself. Moreover, aviation and aerial applications play a key role in some of our most important industries like agriculture, mining and energy and even in public services like health care and providing access to rural communities.

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Photo: True size of Africa, photo courtesy of the Economist

Going higher into ‘space’, Africa needs space technology and its applications including Earth observation systems, meteorological satellites, communication satellites and global navigation systems. It simply has no other choice due to the continent’s immense size. These space tools allow developing countries to communicate, collect environmental and land use data, manage use of natural resources, monitor shipping lanes, help plan cities, manage its responses to natural disasters, and also provide education and health services in remote areas.

Lastly, and perhaps the most important aspect of space, is the national pride and unity that comes with it. If you don’t believe me, just ask Indians whose low budget spacecraft entered orbit around Mars in September, lifting it into a small but exclusive club of space powers and ahead of archrival China.

I want to make a plea. It’s a broad, ambitious ask, but an important plea nonetheless. Support improving STEM education in our country. It could be something big like helping to start a robotics or astronomy club at a school or assisting in a Saturday school programme. It could also be something small like reading Popular Mechanics magazine to your child or taking them to see a movie like Interstellar.

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Photo: AERLA Pre-African Aerospace and Defence Expo discussion in September 2014 on the African youth in aerospace

And don’t forget we are always looking for people passionate about education and the youth to join AERLA in order to help create South Africa’s and Africa’s future astronauts, engineers, entrepreneurs, generals and newer roles like drone pilots in addition to the dozens of other related professions.

I’d like to end with one of my favorite, most inspiring quotes from John F Kennedy when he addressed Rice University more than 52 years ago in September 1962. It was the first thing I wrote when we hung the first whiteboard up at AERLA. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

This is going to require local and international collaboration, and support from various stakeholders. It is certainty not going to be easy, but something that simply needs to be done to ensure a brighter future. DM

Read more: Embry-Riddle press release.


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