South Africa's space sector has been hobbled by lack of adequate support from the South African government. This was made clear during a panel discussion on space technology at the Aerospace, Maritime and Defence Conference 2017 in Pretoria on Friday.
"Most space programmes, worldwide, have been supported by governments," pointed out Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) legal and compliance chief director for special economic zones and space affairs Nomfuneko Majaja. "It needs a strategic decision ... for a national [space] programme. Once a national programme has been decided, it must be funded."
South African National Space Agency space engineering quality specialist Eduardo Jorge Pinto highlighted that a National Space Strategy for the country had been published near the end of 2010. But it has never been approved. This Space Strategy, he observed, had proposed that the country spend R1-billion a year for ten years on its space programme. "We're spending no-where near that .... The political will is not there."
Part of the blame, however, had to reside with the local space sector itself. "In the space sector one of the capabilities we lack is putting forward the business case for space," said Denel Dynamics programme manager Patrick Ndlovu. "We have a long way to go to perfect our [marketing] strategy."
"We are very good engineers, but bad at budgeting; we refuse to acknowledge that the Rand [exchange rate] is up and down. That is bad; we need a mechanism to deal with this," affirmed Pinto. "Our supply chain procedures are terrible. There is too much red tape. One of the things we need to achieve ASAP is to ensure those proceedings are ... simple."
But space is important to the country. Ndlovu noted that information processing was a key component of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and that space technologies were a "key" source of information. Satellites, Pinto averred, were used "to support critical decision-making by the government." Space data, used in what is called space applications, is used to support agriculture, land use, urban planning and disaster management, among many others things. "The capabilities we have in space applications is enormous," asserted Majaja. "With these applications we can do things much better, much simpler, much faster."
The country has already built and has launched two satellites (not counting CubeSats, also known as nanosatellites). "By building satellites, we encourage industry, we bring in modern manufacturing methods," explained Pinto. "We create Centres of Competence, Centres of Excellence. We do research and development." This all stimulates innovation.
Majaja elucidated that the DTI had a two-fold role with regard to space. "The DTI serves in a regulatory role, through the Space Council. Over and above that, the DTI is responsible for industrial development. ... So we do have some [space industrial] capabilities in the country. All we have to do is ramp-up, invest more in such capabilities, so that we can have a sustainable space programme."