South African National Space Agency Bill [B20-2008]: Department response to Committee's concerns

Science and Technology

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

The Department responded to the concerns raised by the Committee at its previous meeting:
▪ The Department was hoping for the strategy and policy to be approved by Cabinet in August.
▪ The presentation explained the level at which South Africa currently stood as far as space capabilities are concerned and where it needed to go if it were to maintain any space programme and activities. While there seemed to be an existing human capability, as a result of the space programme which had been abandoned in 1993/94, this would have to be augmented and developed greatly.
▪ The decision to embark on a space program in order to attain a certain level of indigenous space capability was partly a strategic one and while costly would also serve to save costs in the long run and provide value added services.
▪ Sentech’s concern over an overlap of mandate, as defined by the new Agency’s functions was resolved.

Members were still concerned about the absence of a policy and strategy in which the Bill could be embedded. The Chairperson felt that the Committee’s concerns about the awaited budget approval by National Treasury and the awaited approval of both policy and strategy, were concerns that precluded the immediate adoption of the Bill, despite the completed amendments and the presentation by the Department of Science and Technology.

The Committee agreed to draft a letter of protest about the lack of consultation in appointing the board of the National Research Council. They felt that the relevant Act needed to be amended to remedy this.

Meeting report

Department of Science and Technology (DST) response to Committee concerns
Dr Val Munsami, Manager: Space Science and Technology, DST, addressed the concerns about the current status of space policy and strategy, the current space-scape, the budget analysis and the clause that had been questioned by Sentech.

Both the policy and the strategy had been approved by the DST. The policy awaited public consultations, which were set to take place in July, and the approval of both policy and the strategy by Cabinet hopefully in August. They envisaged a launch of policy, strategy and the Agency in September at the Cape Town Aerospace and Defence exhibition.

The current space-scape placed South Africa in the cluster of emerging space nations after established and intermediate space nations. South Africa was leading in space capabilities in this cluster, but lagging in heritage, as a result of the previous space program which had been abandoned in 1993/1994. The situation needed to be rectified immediately in order for South Africa not to lose this position. The National Space Program intended to address the need for developing capabilities and increasing space activities.

Dr Munsami explained that satellites moved in a geo-stationary orbit which meant that they were always above the same point on the earth. He explained how satellites could take imagery of the earth at different resolutions for different purposes.

According to its available technology and space experience and process readiness, South Africa needed to cooperate with other partners. The ideal situation would be where South Africa became completely independent and ready for a fully indigenous programme. South Africa currently had different capabilities as far as different resolution systems were concerned. Some were only in an experimental phase while others were operational. Hyperspectral resolution, which chopped up the colour bands of red, blue, green and infrared into 125 sub-bands, was an area where South Africa was still working at an experimental level. Medium resolution of greater than 3m with Low Earth Orbit systems were operational capabilities. High resolution capabilities would become operational once Sumandile-sat was launched.

An organogram of the Space Agency divided it into functional and thematic programmes, with the Space Affairs Council acting as a regulatory body and an ad hoc Space Advisory Committee. Dr Munsami went into greater detail on the space agency environment with input from Departments of Trade and Industry, Communication and Defence. The latter would be with regard to safety and security issues.

Dr Munsami said the audit had shown that South Africa’s capabilities were of an aeronautics standard and that this level needed to be lifted to a space standard. Aircraft could always return to earth for maintenance and repairs, but satellites with communication payloads could be expected to stay in orbit for up to fifteen years. This required a high standard of capabilities. Space itself did not provide a stable environment as it included temperature fluctuations and other space weather fluctuations.

Dr Munsami said the Agency would use primary contractors for a certain percentage of the work while the rest would be distributed among other industry players. The space programme would include telementary tracking and control of satellites, in order to enable the downloading of data from the satellite. Facilities like the Overberg Toetsbaan and Houwtech would serve for testing and integration. Research on the earth’s magnetic fields and the development of various technologies, especially optical sensors, would also be pursued.

The budget had been projected based on what would be required for public institutions and research and development. Together this came to R770 million for 2012 and R2300 million in 2017. Currently R120 million to R600 million was being spent on applications.

Two models for licensing would be used, based on either a fixed price per annum or cost per image purchased.

Clause 5(1)(d) had been changed to accommodate the concerns expressed by Sentech. Instead of using the word “data”, the word “imagery” had been inserted in the following clause: “acquire, assimilate and disseminate space satellite imagery” and the term “satellite imagery” had been defined.

Mr Oliphant asked whether the exclusion was not limiting to the space program.

Dr Boni Mehlomakulu, Deputy Director General: Research, Development and Implementation (RDI), said they had been in consultation with Sentech on this issue and both parties were satisfied with the wording and its implications.

A representative of Sentech confirmed that the company fully agreed with the proposal.

Ms Mehlamakulu asked for the approval and adoption of the Bill.

Mr Oliphant was concerned that Cabinet had not yet approved the policy or the strategy. This was inconsistent with the way things needed to progress.

Ms B Ngcobo (ANC) asked at what point South Africa was presently in developing its space capabilities. She asked what route did the process of licensing take. She asked for clarity on South Africa’s foreign partners in approaching launch capabilities.

Mr Phil Mjwara (DST Director-General) explained that South Africa was currently placed more in a situation of being in the phase of cooperation with South African industry participation in various fields. South Africa was leading in the Optical Medium Resolution sector. Licensing would occur through the Agency if it involved an entity from within the Agency and would go through the Council if it were required from an entity outside the Agency. The issue of gaining launch capabilities was somewhat mired in previous political promises made in 1993 and 1994, where the purpose had been to ensure that the dual use of launch capabilities would not be abused to launch nuclear missiles. South Africa was currently in the process of renegotiating the terms of this agreement, whereby it could be agreed that this technology would not be used for missiles. This would be in accordance with the relevant UN resolution. A further consideration was the enormous expense of developing launch capability. This could cost almost their entire budget. Regarding their research capabilities there were negatives as well as positives. They still had human capital from the previous space program, but many of these experts were fast approaching retirement age. These gaps needed to be filled in order to maintain a space program capability. Their strategy would be to use their necessity to outsource capabilities to develop their own skills and to transfer skills. He said the budget had been purely projective and that the budget was still under scrutiny by the National Treasury. It was yet to be approved and therefore the information was of a sensitive nature.

Mr Mjwara said launching costs posed a challenge but there was some news in this regard.

Ms Mehlamakulu said that they were in the process of renegotiating the terms of an agreement made by the government in 1993, which could see the possible enrichment of uranium and the permission to develop launching ability.

Mr Oliphant asked where these human capabilities were scattered.

Dr Munsami said that the audit had established that many of them were still in the employ of the likes of Denel and the CSIR.

Ms Mahomed (ANC) referred to the budget analysis in the presentation and asked which indicators had been used to establish these projections. How did they envision harnessing the human resources scattered all across the country? She asked why SA was not leading in the heritage sector and what indicators had been used to project the figures in the budget. A more structured plan was required to attain the goal of having wholly indigenous space capabilities. She asked why such large amounts of money were needed to purchase images. She asked if the envisaged space program incorporated an early warning signals program for disaster management in order to ensure the safety of the country as far as earthquakes, sea currents and the shifting of plates were concerned. She asked how much advocacy would be effected to develop space capabilities from as young as kindergarten.

Dr Munsami said that relationships with other government departments had been integral to establishing governmental needs. A National Space Science Working group had been established for this very purpose and the strategy spoke to the needs that had been expressed by the various departments. There had therefore been strong consultation. The Earth Observation Strategy indicated this. The budget had been submitted to National Treasury. The budget figures had been derived from other international agencies and their outlooks and they had grown the budget based on this information. He admitted that harnessing the scattered capabilities and bringing them together would prove a challenge but he believed the space programme would prove attractive. The Sunsat program had involved 75 post graduates of which half had already gone overseas because there had been no further reason to stay. A space program would keep such human capital in the country. The development of a fully indigenous space program would only be reached after an interval of working closely with foreign partners in order to learn from them and to make it economically viable.

Mr Mjwara said France was completely indigenous in its satellite space program. This entailed designing one’s own mission and launch capability, as well as manufacturing and assembling one’s own satellite and then downloading the satellite data in order to provide a value added service. Presently South Africa had no option but to pay large sums for imagery, as they did not have the capabilities of producing them without their own satellites in space. A large amount of money was simply flowing out of the country as a result of this lack. The strategy provided for the provision of early warning signals and would be one of the prime factors used in disaster forecasting.

Prof Mohamed criticized the indiscriminate use of colours in the layout of the presentation, as this made it very difficult to distinguish things when one was colour blind. The use of numerals in order to distinguish one section from another on a map had been used elsewhere for many years.

Mr Mjwara said that he would certainly take this into consideration in future and apologized.

Mr Blanche questioned whether it was economically wise to consider developing launching capabilities in view of the fact that Europe was already streaks ahead and that it was so expensive. He asked if it would not be more feasible to focus on the other more immediately attainable goals and to use the agreements South Africa already had with India and Brazil to negotiate with them to launch their satellites.

Mr Munsami said that the decision to invest in the ability to launch was a strategic one, as being reliant on other parties was not an ideal situation, and even if they were to rely on partners they still needed informed experts to know the launch options. This again required the same kind of human capital. The policy as it stood was quite conservative in this regard and its plans for accessing space were cautious. It still required that they look at launch capabilities.

Mr Mjwara said the first phase of the National Policy looked at partnering with India, Brazil and China in order to facilitate launch options. Only over time would they be able to look at having the capabilities to launch themselves and to raise the necessary infrastructure in order to make it a more economically viable option.

Mr Ainslie asked in what ways the policy and strategy matched the Bill. He asked who had been involved in determining the policy and what emphasis had been placed on space technology specifically for the purposes of assisting Africa.

Dr Munsami replied that the audit has also established that their space skills capabilities were very fragmented and that the new Space Agency would serve as a point of convergence to bring these capabilities together and encourage intra as well as inter-governmental collaboration, as presently there was very little awareness among them of what capabilities were available in South Africa. The policy spoke to the development of human capital, infrastructure and funding. Space science and exploration, as well as science and technology were geared to become vehicles of innovation. The national infrastructure and other facilities would become centres of excellence in promoting the space program. The Department of Trade and Industry would also pursue industrial development, while the DST would promote innovation. International relations would be greatly enhanced and facilitated by the agency and therefore featured prominently in the policy. It also looked at space relationships within Africa and South Africa’s role in respect to this. The Department would be signing an agreement on 19 June together with Nigeria and Algeria. This would be known as the African Resources and Environmental Management Constellation (ARMC).

Mr Oliphant wanted clarity on whether the definition of space science was all encompassing enough to include geodesy. The issue of skills development and proper advocacy also required greater planning as the expense they would be incurring with a space programme had to be warranted and sustained by the equivalent development of skills required to sustain it and to take it to new levels. He asked if there had been any further developments with the Sumandile satellite launching.

Dr Munsami replied they were scheduled for a meeting that very afternoon with a Russian contact in order to look at other launching options.

Mr Oliphant said they would like to know what the attitude of National Treasury was towards the budget the Department had proposed, since clearly the resources needed to be available in order for the Agency to be a success. They required more clarity on this as well as the issue of the outstanding policy and strategy. These gaps needed to be closed in order for the law to proceed appropriately. The concerns precluded the immediate adoption of the Bill. Translation of the Bill in all the required official languages was also required.

Board appointments to the National Research Council
Mr Oliphant said the members would have to consider their support of the board appointments to the National Research Council (NRF).

Ms B Ngcobo (ANC) commented on the short notice with regard to this issue.

Mr A Ainslie (ANC) said that while he supported the names put forward, bar a few, he was extremely disappointed in the process as there had been no consultation. These circumstances would only repeat themselves constantly if the matter were not properly addressed.

Prof I Mohamed (ANC) said that he had never experienced such a lack of consultation and felt that a protest had to be lodged to the Minister.

Mr Oliphant agreed to draft a letter of protest. He would note that members supported the appointments with a reservation about the lack of consultation. He did not wish the board of the NRF to be tainted by the process.

Ms Ngcobo said that while the Minister had claimed that he had been forced to do so by the provisions of the Act, he still could have amended the Act appropriately.

The meeting was adjourned.


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