South African National Space Agency Bill [B20-2008]: public hearings

Science and Technology

03 June 2008
Chairperson: Mr G Oliphant (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Committee heard five submissions from various organizations. All the representatives of these organizations were strongly in favour of the Bill, with only a few suggestions for minor amendments. Generally the sentiment was that the Bill was long overdue and that nothing should delay it any longer. Most representatives expressed the opinion that a National Space Agency would facilitate positive effects that would far outweigh the sacrifices of cost, in order to enable South Africa to become a player in the space industry. Advantages put forward were that it would build scientific capacity, which in turn would lead to spin-offs in various other industries. A national space agency would allow for coordination between institutions which at present were working in isolation. This would only serve to strengthen the industry and ensure greater competitiveness on a global scale. According to a number of the representatives, South Africa did indeed have the necessary skills and materials to become a significant participant in this industry. However, it did require input into skills development for the future, as well as the development of opportunities for the substantial skills that South Africa already had developed over the past decades.

Meeting report


C&M Space Investments
Mr Siyabonga Copiso introduced himself and his partner, Mr Mzukizi Mazula, of C&M Space Investments, which was formed in 2005 as the first Black-owned company to participate in the South African space industry. They were also the founding members of Mihle Consortium, the BEE partner to Sun Space and Information Systems. He gave some background on their qualifications and the company as well as their involvement in the project management of South Africa’s second satellite, SumbandileSAT.

Mr Mazula explained that they had conceptualized the second payload for SumbandileSAT. The participation of children had been encouraged through the naming of this payload. It had been sponsored by several departments of government and had the involvement of several academic institutions. The satellite had not yet been launched. The applications for the satellite had been built by students and Mr Mazula gave a short explanation of the satellite.

Mr Copiso said that an Agency would consolidate government and industry efforts around space activities.
It would also promote stainable and economic development through SMME development. It would position South Africa as a leader in the African space race.

Mr Mazula reiterated his belief that South Africa needed to get passionate about space technology as a matter of urgency, before it lost skilled people to other countries. The industry had established a critical mass of micro-satellites and engineering capacity to make it sustainable. The audit done by the Department of Science and Technology had shown that the proposed bill was long overdue and that a dedicated bill needed a dedicated budget.

Mr Oliphant said it was essential to complete a proper process of consultation before passing the bill and thus far it seemed that all comments regarding the bill were positive bar a few which expressed reservations due to cost. The fact that SumbandileSAT had as yet to be launched raised some questions. He thanked both gentlemen for raising three substantive issues: the issue of BEE, the definition of disposal and public-private partnerships (PPPs).

Ms B Ngcobo (ANC) pointed out that the references to the bill in the submission had changed and should read: 3(9)(b) was 4(b), 4(2)(b) was 5.2(b) and 4(2)(c) was no longer in the bill.

Mr C Morkel (ANC) asked how SMME involvement would be reflected in the proposed bill. He asked if the role of SANSA would be in the form of project management or more in a coordinating role, where it would not have capital goods of its own, where every mission had its own specific assets, not belonging to the Agency.

Mr Mazula said it was better to start in-house with a project before outsourcing in order to gain a good idea of expectations. The proposed bill would provide the opportunity of owning a payload.

University of Western Cape
Mr Keith Gottschalk of the Political Studies Department at the University of Western Cape, expressed support for the proposed bill on behalf of the University. The Department had had an interest in space policy for many years, especially in the context of developing countries and the real consideration of other seemingly more pressing needs on the public purse. He nonetheless stated that the bill was long overdue and that other African countries had already started space programmes, such as Nigeria, Egypt and Algeria. Space technology required comprehensive inter-departmental coordination and communication and therefore a structure was needed to offer this coordination and communication. An Agency would make it less awkward to negotiate with similar agencies like the European Space Agency, NASA and the Japanese Space Agency. It would also allow for international partnerships with these agencies and its concomitant budget sharing. An Agency would strengthen foreign policy with countries like Brazil and India, with which South African already had trading agreements. These countries already had substantial space programmes. America’s agency, NASA, offered extraordinary outreach programmes in its bid to encourage children to pursue scientific and engineering careers, especially among so-called minority groups. A girl from Khayelitsha had been given the opportunity to work at NASA. Such opportunities should be afforded to South Africans as well by our own Agency. It should develop an effective outreach programme.

Mr Oliphant asked whether Mr Gottschalk foresaw any amendments to the bill.

Mr Gottschalk replied that he was comfortable with the bill and that there were a few minor points that required clarification.

Mr Mazula commented that the encouragement of children to get involved in space was close to his heart and of paramount importance.

South African Astronomical Society
Dr Peter Martinez, Division: Head of Space Science and Technology at the South African Astronomical Society presented his submission on behalf of the Society. He explained that while it might seem that space technology was far removed and impractical in terms of everyday applications and needs, they were surrounded by space technology in their everyday lives from the use of cell phones to the access to climatic and international news which were all products of space systems. Therefore space technology played an ever-increasing role in people’s lives and they had become increasingly dependent upon it. It was therefore important to see the involvement of South Africa in this technology, within this context. He said it was an opportune time to establish a Space Agency to coordinate space-related programmes, which were currently dispersed among various institutions, without much coordination.

South Africa had been involved in space technology since the early sixties when the first signals from the spacecraft to Mars were picked up in South Africa at Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory. The Society therefore fully supported the establishment of an Agency in order to improve coordination for space projects and to serve as a single point of contact through which to launch space programmes on the continent in conjunction with other countries that had common concerns. The concept of an African Managed Resource Constellation could entail satellites from different countries on the continent banding together and being of service to all members. A National Space Agency would strengthen the space industry in South Africa, as it would create spin-offs in other industries - from having to develop and work within the stringent environment that went hand in hand with this level of technology.

Dr Martinez said that an audit initiated by the Department of Science and Technology had revealed that the industry had a rich heritage of capabilities in a number of areas. The challenge lay in the harmonization of these capabilities, ensuring that they were fully harnessed and avoiding duplication through effective linkages with all related institutions. The abilities that lay within the domain of astronomical science overlapped in many ways with the domain of space technology and the competencies required. The Hubble space telescope had been the most productive telescope ever in providing information on space. The development of GPS through the use of algorithms by radio astronomers to measure the surface of the moon, had given birth to a to a multi-billion industry. Therefore research and development in these sciences had tremendous implications for other industries. It was the belief of the Society that other space-related national facilities such as the Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory and the Hermanus Magnetic Observatory had much to offer in the future space programme. This was especially so in the development of human capacity, as the capabilities required for the observation of the universe from earth overlapped with those required to observe the earth from outer space. His final comment was regarding the insertion of the term “Geodesy” in Clause 4(c) of the Bill as this more clearly defined a certain domain of technology.

Mr P Nefolovhodwe (AZAPO) asked what the consequences of not including the term ‘Geodesy’ were.

Ms F Mohamed (ANC) asked whether the term was really necessary.

Mr J Blanche (DA) questioned whether South Africa had the necessary educational facilities to capacitate the space industry and whether it had the capacity to manufacture such systems.

Mr Morkel asked if the insertion of such a specific term might not lead to its obsolescence and the necessity to amend the Bill again at some later stage. He commented that the ability to have autonomy in space technology would be advantageous to South Africa in other areas such as disaster prevention and independent access to information from satellites.

Dr Martinez agreed that it was desirable to be autonomous in space capabilities, even if it was not in every space arena. These capabilities would provide spin-offs into other sectors of industry. Developing capabilities in this field would certainly strengthen South Africa’s bargaining position in an arena where there were no guarantees on continuity and affordability. He said that the generic terms of space physics, earth observation and astronomy did cover the ambit of geodesy. The term would not become outdated in the future, although it could simply be included in the regulations of the Bill. In closing he said he was delighted to be a part of the process and said that the landscape of space science in South Africa had improved radically in the last few years.

Dr Martinez explained that it was an area of science or scientific domain used in satellite navigation to understand earth systems such as the small movement of continents, to measure atmospheric changes due to solar radiation and to measure the interaction between the earth’s magnetic field and its atmosphere. The monitoring of space environment was important too as it affected satellites and terrestrial systems. Space weather needed monitoring in order to assess the impact on satellite operation.

Marcom Aeronautics and Space
Mr Mark Comninos extended full support and enthusiasm for the proposed bill. Marcom was a private company formed in 2002 to launch commercial satellites into space. Mr Comninos related his aeronautical qualifications obtained in the United States of America. He saw South Africa as holding enormous potential in the space industry as it had the necessary highly skilled people, despite perceptions to the contrary and it had the level of technology required. 

Mr Comninos explained the functionality required to launch a rocket with payload into space. He stated that since his company was a private enterprise, they were not looking for money but needed political backing in order to attract the trust of investors. South Africa had fallen behind in the space race to launch satellites. Countries like Nigeria, Egypt and Kenya had already set the lead and South Africa needed to join that circle in order to get their support. Their operation had a launch site at Brits and the proposed launch complex could be manufactured out of standard industrial hardware. The research and development required R100 million and would take three years to bring to market. Within that time they were able to manufacture launch vehicles capable of launching anything from one to six tons of payload into orbit. The establishment of a National Space Agency would signify political support of space technology development and would facilitate commercial projects. The launch industry was worth an estimated R1,5 toR2 billion internationally and it was imperative that South Africa partake of this market and that they retain their local talent. The establishment of the Agency would derive many benefits such as strengthening NEPAD and the AU, the creation of technologies which are independent from foreign technologies, the enhancement of global perception of South Africa’s scientific and engineering capabilities, and the enhancement of manufacturing opportunities and industrial reputation. Finally it would enhance the country’s international standing and it would inspire youth and foster national pride.

Ms Mohamed asked whether Mr Comninos was satisfied with the Bill. She asked for elaboration on the goals of the business and how procurement issues and SMMEs would fit into the scenario.

Mr S Farrow (DA) said it was clear that the industry needed government support and asked how far the market had been tested, as it seemed that there had already been some work done in this direction in relation to NEPAD and other African countries. He also enquired whether the relationships with the University of Stellenbosch and the CSIR ensured that all required standards were being fulfilled.

A committee member asked whether the Brits area would be advantaged in any way by the locating of the launch site there as it was a disadvantaged area currently.

Mr Morkel commented on the exciting presentation and the desirability of autonomy in being able to launch one’s own satellites, as opposed to being dependent on third parties for information or access to data. This would also be subject to affordability and would require political backing. He asked if their phase I rocket launch would be able to launch the satellite which was being delayed. He asked whether the specific altitudes it was required to reach were attainable. Another concern was how competitive Mr Comninos saw his operation being, given the kind of investment that would be required to make it operational. Mr Morkel suggested that while the cost was significant these might be worthwhile in view of the autonomy gained.

Mr Comninos replied that investors wanted guarantees on their investments and therefore they took every necessary precaution to ensure the success of their launch vehicle to perform as expected. This included fulfilling all legal requirements involved in working with technology of this nature. They had also registered with the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Arms agreement and were also sensitive to the need of ensuring that Intellectual Property remained in South Africa. Once there was a South African National Space Agency, their task of attracting investors should become easier as investors would realize that the industry was supported by the government in a way which would see its development and meant that it was serious about developing space-based systems and the technology it required. Therefore, this Bill would place a stamp of support which investors were looking for and which was long overdue.

On the question on whether their phase 1 launch was appropriate for delivering the satellite at the correct altitude, he said that they were capable of delivering a one ton payload at a 200km height with the Cheetah 1. The satellite in question was approximately 80kg in weight and could easily be propelled to the required height of 600km. This would require some extra propellant and was well within the capability of their vehicle.

Regarding competitiveness, Mr Comninos said that they were able to offer a launch at six thousand dollar per kilogram, which extrapolated to six million dollars a ton. The going rate currently was ten thousand dollar per kilogram, which meant they were competitive. Reliability was an even more crucial factor on which the investor based his decision, with cost coming a close second. The only way to test the market was to build a rocket and fly it, although having said that, in California there was a company being run by a South African, called Space X and which had already tried to launch a prototype twice and had failed twice. Despite this they had a list of clients waiting to do business with them. He said that one had to build the vehicle, get it onto the test stand first before one could really test the market.

Mr Comninos said that he had no problem with the Bill and thought it was fantastic. They were currently not reliant upon any government organizations. On the building of human resources, he said that their operation would require some sixty individuals over the next three years, thirty of whom would have to have scientific or engineering capabilities. These skills were already available in the country. The outsourcing of the building of the different parts of the vehicle was possible, as they had already identified about sixty different companies that had the necessary manufacturing processes in place. They just needed to put it all together. They had also been working in conjunction with the CSIR, the University of Stellenbosch and SunSpace.

He said the material needed to manufacture the parts of the vehicle were already available in South Africa, some of them being used in high tech alloys in the manufacturing of motor cycles. A somewhat different process would be used to manufacture the materials for their purposes. He said that the launch site at Brits was ideally situated as it launched the rocket into a major orbit which was directed eastwards and crossed the equator. They could monitor the vehicle and track it via a monitoring station, which could either be on board a ship or on Marion Island. Safety considerations were paramount in the use of technology like this. Skills development in the disadvantaged areas would also receive priority.

Mr Oliphant asked how much risk was really involved and what happened to all the satellites once they were launched.

Mr Comninos replied that their operation was essentially a delivery system and what happened afterwards to their delivery package was not really their concern. However, he acknowledged that they were working with high-energy systems, in which safety had to be a high priority. They functioned at a 95% success rate, which meant that one in twenty missions would fail. Therefore there were self-terminating mechanisms involved, which had to be fail-safe. There were a number of different types of tracking devices which worked with visuals, radar and telemetry. Telemetry was a method of transmitting of data over radio frequency.

A member commented that there seemed to be a lack of women among the representatives in the industry and that hopefully this would be addressed in some way.

Prof Mohamed said that the National Research Foundation and the Department of Science and Technology were working towards the goal of encouraging more women to enter the field of science and technology.

Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR)
Mr Johan le Roux said that the CSIR had been contracted by the Department of Science and Technology to establish and host the interim office of the National Space Agency. It was with this directive in mind that their questions and comments were made.  The CSIR had been involved in the establishment of a number of other government agencies and as a result they had gained experience and expertise in this. They therefore intended giving value added comments in this context.

Mr le Roux said that the CSIR pledged its full support to the Bill and the South African National Space Agency. He suggested that more clarity be established on the proposal that the Agency be the only one to manage space-related matters. The Bill did not specify if both civilian and military aims of government would be served under one umbrella. There was lack of clarity on whether the Agency would regulate astronomy activities. It was important to clearly define the role of the Agency in so far as it would play a finding, coordination or implementation role, or a combination of these roles. The scope of the Agency needed to be more clearly set out in order to avoid a lack of follow through and inability to deliver further down the line.

The Bill should indicate which institutional model the Agency should follow, depending on the role it planned for itself. This model should fall within the Public Finance Management Act guidelines.

Mr le Roux said that defining the role of the Agency would impact on whether a funding or operational model would be chosen and it would impact on which institutions would be transferred to the Agency. Further general comments included that the Bill needed to elaborate on the term “peaceful use of space” and whether this precluded any military use. He also spoke about the setting of targets for key performance indicators (KPIs) in order to ensure delivery. The CEO of the Agency should have the appropriate qualifications. The Bill needed to be guided by a clear policy framework and space strategy. In conclusion, the CSIR offered it full support and participation to the Bill and the establishment of the Agency.

Meeting ended.

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