Chris Nsamba says that at one time or another every successful scientist has been called a madman, and some think he is crazy about working to send the first Ugandan into space — from the backyard of his mother’s home.
“People around here used to come and see and say he was mad, but they come back now and are impressed,” Nsamba’s mother, Sarah Lugwama, told AFP, waving towards a group of eight volunteers sanding the left wing of the hulking craft parked under a jackfruit tree in the garden.
The craft named the African Skyhawk, which looks like a bulky glider with a wingspan of 10 metres (33 feet), will reach into the earth’s outer atmosphere, says Nsamba, the founder of the African Space Research Programme.
After an intrepid pilot and a navigator have tested the craft sometime next year, Nsamba explains, the next step will be to look beyond the earth’s atmosphere.
“Within five years we will have launched a probe into space and within a decade we will put a man in space,” says Nsamba, 26, an amateur aeronautical engineer, as he leans against the wing of the Skyhawk.
But for Nsamba, and his impoverished homeland, there is still a long way to go before they can think of reaching the cosmos.
The Skyhawk still lacks an engine and Uganda does not yet have any trained astronauts. Nsamba says that he will have to both train and certify them himself.
But despite the hurdles there are a lot of people who have put their faith — and money — in Nsamba’s project.
Nsamba says that over 600 space enthusiasts have volunteered their time and opened their wallets to help make his dream a reality and that almost $80,000 and 22 months have been spent on the Skyhawk project so far.
“Since I was young I was interested in space… so whenever I have any free time I come here to work on the project,” says Nixon Lukenge, 25, a self-employed printer and would-be astronaut working on the craft.
But it is not just amateur enthusiasts who are lending their support to the project. Uganda’s veteran President Yoweri Museveni has also backed the programme and even pledged some financial support during a private phone call to Nsamba earlier this year.
“The president’s contribution and our moral support was to show that we are proud of his ambitious project and we support him morally and financially,” Richard Tushemereirwe, Museveni’s senior private secretary for science and technology, tells AFP.
Tushemereirwe says the amount to be given to the project has yet to be decided and that the funds would likely come through early next year.
But in a country where soaring inflation means many are finding it increasingly hard to survive, some might argue that Uganda’s scarce financial resources could be put to better use dealing with more pressing needs back on earth.
Tushemereirwe disagrees and argues that just because Uganda may not be able to match the established space powers by spending big does not mean the country should stop dreaming big.
“I don’t think that we are in a position to compete with China or anyone but I think we can make a contribution,” Tushemereirwe says. “People interested in scientific research will always do their things irrespective of the health of the economy and any turmoil happening around them.”