Diaspora Stories: Kenyan astronaut in the making

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At zero gravity, one’s body just floats in the air as there is no force to keep him/her grounded. It is akin to swimming on air.

Ms Wanjiku Kanjumba had just had the weightless experience for the first time when she talked to the Sunday Nation on phone from Florida, US and the joy in her voice was palpable.

“That was really fun. I really did enjoy myself,” she said.

Recently, she had worn an astronaut’s spacesuit and had experienced the breathlessness people feel when they are flying six kilometres off the ground without an oxygen tank while conducting a test flight simulation.

DREAMING

If things continue on this trajectory, Kenya may one day have its first astronaut in the 21-year-old currently majoring in astronomical engineering under the broader course of Aerospace Engineering at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida.

Those who have taken the course before her have secured jobs at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), aerospace transportation and manufacturer company SpaceX, aircraft maker Boeing among others. That keeps her dreaming despite the hurdles.

Kenya is in its infancy on matters of space and only this month did it launch its first cube satellite to the International Space Station in Florida. It will be deployed into space late May.

TRAINING

The man in charge of the Kenya Space Agency, Dr John Njoroge, told the Sunday Nation in February that the corporation, domiciled in the Ministry of Defence, will start moving at full speed when a CEO is appointed by June. Last February, President Uhuru Kenyatta gazetted the agency to replace the National Space Secretariat that has been in existence since 2009.

“We’ll hit the ground running,” said Dr Njoroge, adding that Kenya will use space technology in agriculture, weather forecast, wildlife management, mining among other sectors.

As it stands, Kenya has no training agreement with NASA and it means Ms Kanjumba cannot secure internship at the prestigious American federal space agency.

“Apparently, they have contracts with South Africa and Nigeria, but they don’t have a contract with Kenya,” she told the Sunday Nation.

Now, Ms Kanjumba can only hope. She said there are few chances of ever working in Kenya, but she is open to all possibilities.

A-LEVELS

“If there is an opportunity for me to come back to Kenya and if they require me to come there to start a programme, I may, especially with the skills I’m gaining on the aerospace industry,” she said.

Ms Kanjumba, the last born in her family, left Kenya in 2016, having finished her A-Levels at Oshwal Academy Senior High a year earlier. She had finished her O-Levels at St Christopher’s Secondary School in 2013.

Her good grades in mathematics, physics and chemistry contributed to her securing a place at Embry-Riddle. She lives inside campus and works part-time.

And because she had done the 13th year in the international education system, she was presumed to have done her first year in university, which is why she is currently in her third year even though she has been there for just two years.

ALL-ROUNDED

“It’s a four-year programme and they require you to do various things; be it physics, mathematics or computer coding. They also require you to do humanities so as to be all-rounded,” she said.

Under the aerospace engineering course, she chose astronautics.  Her speciality, she said, is studying everything above our atmosphere. “That’s the simplest way I can put it,” she added.

In Kenya, the closest a space enthusiast like her can come to quenching their thirst for knowledge is by taking the basic space science programme at University of Nairobi (UoN). Technical University of Kenya also has a department of physics and space science headed by Prof Paul Baki, who designed the astronomy programme at UoN, where he was a lecturer for 17 years until 2010.

Ms Kanjumba reckoned she had not heard of the locally available programmes by the time she was heading to the US. But after hearing about Kenya’s first satellite launch, she was over the moon.

“It’s great to hear Kenya is starting to get involved in space,” she said. “Hopefully, this will propel more public interest towards the subject.”

PLANETS

“As a child, I always knew I wanted to do something in science. And I always had a fascination with the planets,” she recalled.

In the course of her degree, in early April she had a chance to participate in a five-day intensive training for people with an interest in space, offered in her university, but by a different organisation that is supported by NASA. The Advanced Possum Academy trains participants on the basics of being scientist-astronauts.

It is on that programme that she got the simulation of zero gravity and high altitude conditions. She also learned from the organisers that she is the first Kenyan to undergo Project Possum training, where participants don clothes (flight suits) emblazoned with their countries’ flags on the shoulders.

“It is definitely something historical. There is no record of a Kenyan doing this programme, so being the first Kenyan citizen-scientist-astronaut candidate has definitely been a historical moment for me,” she said.

SATELLITE

It is titled Bachelor of Science in Astronomy and Astrophysics and it has been on offer since 2009. Students taking the course were part of the team that made the satellite Kenya is about to deploy.

Technical University of Kenya also has a department of physics and space science headed by Prof Paul Baki, who designed the astronomy programme at UoN, where he was a lecturer for 17 years until 2010.

Ms Kanjumba reckoned she had not heard of the locally available programmes by the time she was heading to the US. But after hearing about Kenya’s first satellite launch, she was over the moon.

“It’s great to hear Kenya is starting to get involved in space,” she celebrated. “Hopefully, this will propel more public interest towards the subject.”

Regardless, she is determined to pursue her childhood dreams.

OPPORTUNITIES

“As a small kid, I always knew I wanted to do something in science. And I always found a fascination with the planets in our solar system,” she recalled.

“I would watch the space shuttles and their launches that would happen in the United States, watching space documentaries as well as science-fiction movies, and I would gather books for astronomy and I just gained that interest in space slowly. And at the end of it, I knew that I wanted to do something space-related,” she added.

In the course of her degree, in early April had a chance to participate in a specialised five-day intensive training for people with an interest in space, offered inside her university, but by a different organisation that is supported by NASA’s flight opportunities programme.

Called the Advanced Possum Academy, it trains participants on the basics of being trained as scientist-astronauts.

FLAGS

“We have gone through intense training and landing and everything,” she said. “I graduated as a citizen-scientist-astronaut candidate.”

It is on that programme that she got the simulations of zero gravity and high altitude conditions. She also got to learn from the organisers that she is the first Kenyan to undergo Project Possum training, where participants don clothes (flight suits) emblazoned with their countries’ flags on the shoulders.

“It is definitely something historical. There is no record of a Kenyan doing this programme, so being the first Kenyan citizen-scientist-astronaut candidate has definitely been a historical moment for me,” she said.

As she makes strides into space, Ms Kanjumba continues to stay grounded in her faith, which is quite a paradox for someone deep in the sciences.

PHILOSOPHIES

“If it wasn’t for my belief and walking with God, I don’t think I would be here. He has really stood by me and I know He even wants to bless me even more,” she said. “I keep on staying grounded in God, because at the end of the day, it’s all for His glory.”

Her elder brothers are a medical doctor and an aeronautical engineer respectively.

And with her 21 years on earth, she has picked up a few philosophies along the line.

“No aspiration is too rigid. If you have a passion for something, go for it and never give up,” she says.

“If you keep working hard and do your part, the Lord will provide,” adds Ms Kanjumba.

nation.co.ke

Source Daily Nation

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