This week, Nigeria said it would send an astronaut into space by the year 2030. The news was not, as you may have suspected, an update of a widely circulated scam on Facebook which claimed a Nigerian astronaut was lost in space. Instead Nigeria’s science and technology minister Ogbonnaya Onu said Nigeria would join the growing league of space faring nations, which now includes India, China, Japan, Canada, Russia, the United States, and the 22 member states of the European Space Agency.
As an author who has written about the Nigerian space program in fact and in fiction, two strange aspects of this announcement struck me. The first is that, technically, Nigeria already sent a person into space.
In 2006, the country sent a 17 year-old girl on a parabolic flight—that’s when a jet takes a quick plunge that creates 30 seconds of weightlessness—and she was called an astronaut. The second is that it’s not that hard to send an astronaut into space. You can do what the Europeans and the Indians and other countries did before their own rocket technology matured, which is to hitch a ride on a space vessel from another country and claim credit for it. There are plenty of brilliant, skilled, and athletic Nigerians, including Air Force pilots, who would be perfectly capable of riding up to the International Space Station tomorrow if the space powers would let them.
But what I believe the minister was stating is that Nigeria is prepared to launch an astronaut from its own indigenous rockets, developed through its own know-how and ingenuity—a much bolder pronouncement. It’s encouraging, in that respect, that the minister announced the effort while visiting with the new Defence Space Agency in Abuja because in reality all space programs around the world have close ties to the military.
The major space agencies claim to be willing to share their technical knowledge with developing nations but they tend to withhold key bits of information for military reasons. That’s why Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy, partnered with China to launch its satellites—because the Asian giant promised to train Nigerians so that they could launch their own satellite the next time. (That satellite failed, but it was insured against loss.)
There’s still no easy way forward. I visited Nigeria’s National Space Research and Development Agency in 2014 and I was inspired at its accomplishments but also dismayed at the lack of government support for the program and what seemed to be a failure of leadership. This failure of leadership is a failure of the imagination: a failure to look beyond hand-outs, a failure to search beyond one’s own immediate interests, and a disregard for the talents of its own cultures.
Injecting more money into the space program won’t allow any astronauts to achieve lift off if their pockets are too heavily laden with cash. The money, if it comes, must be well spent and accounted for.
Nigeria’s announcement is bold and maybe even necessary if you consider the email scam involving a Nigerian astronaut which caused a mild Internet sensation in Europe and the United States. The email claims a Nigerian scientist’s cousin was the first African in space, but was left stranded on a secret Soviet space station when his seat to return to Earth was filled by cargo after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The author, one “Dr. Bakare Tunde”, requests the sum of $3 million to help rescue his cousin, who has apparently been in space since 1990. (Yes, 26 years.) That sum will unlock nearly $15 million in back pay, which Dr. Tunde will split with you for your generosity.
It didn’t take much sleuthing for me to discover that this scam has been running since at least 2004, when The Register uploaded the text of the email to its website. A few weeks ago someone decided to re-share it on Facebook, and it’s since gone viral 12 years later, spurred on by sites like BoingBoing, largely because most people had forgotten it.
But let’s take the letter on its own terms. The story is actually very well researched, as preposterous as that may sound. Nigeria does indeed have a National Space Research and Development Agency, as I mentioned earlier. The country also has a reputation for launching troves of outrageous email scams, sometimes called 419 scams, for the section of the criminal code under which they are prosecuted in Nigeria. The fact that the astronaut is African may make the letter seem absurd —but the vast majority of victims believe that Africans are too innocent and stupid to try to steal their money, and fork it over nonetheless.
So the question remains, if this email scam is 12 years old, why has it gone viral again? Laying aside the cynicism of virality— that we as an online species are fickle and will click on anything — the Facebook clicks bonanza suggests that the underlying skepticism about African ingenuity remains in place. Africans simply can’t be smart enough to go into space. But here again, I’d like to credit the author. S/he convincingly wrote the email from the point of view of a Nigerian scientist — believing that the reader would know that the space agency is real — and the storyline only becomes silly when the author imagines why the astronaut was trapped in the first place, that there is a secret Soviet space station circling the Earth.
Is the scam funny because we can’t envision Nigerians going into space on their own initiative? This would be a troubling indictment of African progress, or at least of our perceptions of African progress, because, again, there has been a lot of it, especially in technology. Or is the scam funny because all of us know that if the astronaut lived in space for 26 years, surviving on a supply of secret Soviet oxygen, his bone structure would be decimated, because he presumably hasn’t been exercising on a cosmocycle, and he would now be a primordial pancake with no bone mass or musculature
Minister Onu has now answered the first question for us, by clearly stating that Nigeria has the skills and ambition to go into space. This is a realizable dream that can ignite the minds of the future generations. The minister’s next goal should be not just to send a Nigerian into space but to make sure that none of them get lost, because then the truth will be stranger than fiction.
Deji Bryce Olukotun is the author of Nigerians in Space, a novel out now from Unnamed Press. The sequel will be published in 2017.