Supporters and representatives of sponsors joined businesspeople, professors, engineers and scientists – quite possibly including a scattering of cosmonauts and rocket scientists – in Cape Town on Monday to hear 14 South African schoolgirls report back on their successful mission to construct, calibrate and launch a satellite into near space.
The 14 high school students are the alumni of the inaugural SpaceTrek camp, the second stage of the Women in Stem Space Programme run by the Meta Economic Development Organisation (Medo), a nonprofit organisation with offices in Cape Town, Johannesburg and London. The programme is being run in collaboration with Morehead State University in the US and is sponsored by Isuzu Trucks South Africa.
The presentation was the culmination of a week-long boot camp at High Africa Conference Centre in Worcester in the Western Cape, where the young women learnt about telecommunications, satellite construction, calibration and data analysis.
Daily group activities built up to their “mission to build and launch their device into the near space environment with the help of weather balloons. They were also taught to monitor and analyse data transmitted to their base station. This mission was designed to provide them with experience to develop the payload for Africa’s first privately-owned satellite.
The girls had been selected after the completion of the first stage of the programme, a series of SpacePrep workshops at schools around the Western Cape. These four-hour events, held on Saturdays in Medo’s mobile lab, the Treppie Truck, reached more than 120 young women at their schools and taught them the basics of electro-mechanics by building a mini robot, or Jiggybot, from scratch.
The Women in Stem Space Programme was launched in June last year with the aim of encouraging young women to enter so-called Stem fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). It was launched in partnership with Morehead State University of Kentucky in the US, a respected research and development centre for nano-satellite technologies which runs a similar project, which has seen positive results in encouraging young women to enter what is still perceived by many as male-oriented fields or careers.
Medo’s programme was developed in response to the observed lack of Stem skill and proficiency in the South African labour force, particularly among females. And, as Medo chief executive Judi Sandrock explained: “By 2020, 80% of all future jobs will be Stem related, with almost double the pay of non-Stem related careers.
“So what we are trying to do is to give these young women the best chance out there.”
The learners will participate in the third phase of the programme, the launch of the actual satellite, Medosat1, in the second quarter of this year from the Mojave Desert in the US. It will be the first privately-owned satellite from Africa to be launched.
The Women in Stem programme will run for the next four years with a satellite launch planned each year.