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2021: A space odyssey that can change the future of our planet and help save humanity


Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the seventh Rector of the United Nations (UN) University and UN Under Secretary-General.

The commercialisation of space, as Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson are attempting to do, is not just about egotism but also about bringing down the cost of space technology, resulting in better economies, societies and people.

The world stopped for a brief moment, amazed at the first instances of private space travel. Opinion was sharply divided as to whether this was a crass display of wealth or a giant leap forward for mankind to echo the astronaut Neil Armstrong’s first words as he walked on the moon.

Last month, both Richard Branson, the founder of the Virgin Group, and Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, travelled to space – after Elon Musk’s third successful SpaceX crew launch. 

Musk could not afford to place himself at risk, as Bezos and Branson had.

Of course, all three of them were criticised. After all, these tech billionaires have become incredibly wealthy by exploiting the new digital modes of production driven by the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). Not only are they now designing spacecraft, but they intend to make space tourism mainstream.

Perhaps the most pressing question was, why go to space when we have so many problems right here on Earth? In its second year, the Covid-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the global economy. Unemployment continues to climb significantly, particularly in the developing world. Inequality and poverty have risen to levels that haven’t been seen in decades.

Here in South Africa, the official unemployment rate has climbed to 31%, while the unofficial unemployment rate is worryingly close to 50%. Will going to space provide solutions to the Covid-19 pandemic? Will it give us more effective vaccines that will completely halt the virus instead of just reducing the number of hospitalised people? Will going to space reduce unemployment? Will it spur economic growth? Or, is it just a form of escapism for tech billionaires who are unsure about what to do with the vast wealth they have amassed?

To answer these questions, it is imperative first to understand space technology. In 1945, when Soviet General Georgy Zhukov was marching to Berlin from the east, and US General Dwight Eisenhower was marching from the west, there was one common issue on their minds: securing German scientists. In particular, German nuclear and space scientists, because Germany was arguably the most scientifically advanced country in the world at the time.

Germany boasted the likes of Max Planck, Werner Heisenberg, Max Born, among others, on an impressively long list. At the onset of World War 2, German chemist Otto Hahn discovered nuclear fission, thus paving the way for the atomic bomb. With the help of immigrants from Europe, the Americans gathered scientists in the Manhattan Project, which saw the development of the atomic bomb. The Russians, who secretly knew of this development, were desperate to lay their hands on the nuclear scientists while the Americans wanted to keep both the scientists and technology to themselves.

The other technology that was at stake was rocket technology. Germany had plenty of rocket scientists, and they had developed devastating technology such as the V2-rocket. Top of the list was Wernher von Braun, who was secretly brought to the US. What is not commonly known is that the Soviets also acquired their share of these rocket scientists. In October 1946, the Soviets took the scientists who worked on the V-2 rocket and their families, put them in a sealed train, and transferred them to Gorodomlya Island. The impact of their work on Soviet space exploration still reverberates today.

These scientists were instrumental in developing the Sputnik satellite in 1957. In reaction, President JF Kennedy declared that the United States would put a man on the moon before the end of the 1960s. This triggered the Space Race between the Soviet Union and the US, eventually giving rise to the International Space Station.

At face value, the Space Race was an ego project that has had no positive impact on people, the economy, and society. But it was far from it: the Space Race gave us satellite communication that enhanced economic activities. It gave us the global positioning system that powers electronic maps and brings more efficiency to the logistics industry. It is about to provide us with internet from space that will bring connectivity to the most underdeveloped corners of our planet. Health experiments performed in space help us understand global health problems and result in better medications, saving the lives of millions of people.

With space technology, we are better able to observe our planet and deal with the issue of climate change. In South Africa, climate change will cause the coastline to recede, a reduction in our agricultural output, an increase in diseases, and will devastate the economy. With space technology, we can predict disasters and weather patterns, and increase food production.

So the commercialisation of space, as Musk, Bezos and Branson are attempting to do, is not just about egotism but also about bringing down the cost of space technology, resulting in better economies, societies, and people.

Given all these developments in space technology, where are we in South Africa? Do we have universities that are doing aerospace engineering? The simple answer is yes. Our mechanical engineering and other degrees prepare graduates for careers in space science. South Africa also has a space agency called the South African National Space Agency, although there is scope to expand its reach into all areas of our economy.

For example, with the development of drone technology, we can do remote sensing to map our lands for agricultural production. We now host the Square Kilometre Array, which gathers vast amounts of data that can be used to deal with pressing issues such as mitigating the risk of climate change and its impact on our economy.

In fact, space is so crucial that in 2019, the United States government created the United States Space Force to protect its space assets. So, space is actually a centre of economic activity.

To answer the questions I posed at the beginning of this article, yes, space technology might actually solve the Covid-19 pandemic: it may give us better vaccines and it may be the answer to our burgeoning unemployment and economic growth crisis. It is clear that space is essential, and we cannot afford to be left out of it.

As TS Eliot put it in his poem Little Gidding in 1942: “We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we began and to know the place for the first time.” DM


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  • Bruce Sobey says:

    Good article. There are many spin offs from space exploration. Photo Voltaic cells are only one which will help the world to cut down on carbon emissions.

  • John Cartwright says:

    ‘With space technology, we can … increase food production’. Pardon? The technological drivers of the ‘Green Revolution’ have turned out to be a false promise, producing toxic soils and uprooted small farmers. Advanced technology has brought a great deal destruction as well as benefits, and Professor Marwala’s sunny optimism needs to be tempered by a more explicit, ongoing and tough-thinking debate on shared priorities and objectives.

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