When space research is talked about, certain countries tend to get a mention: the United States, Russia, and the European Union (space research in Europe is in many cases a continental collaboration). These days, China features more in these discussions, and even India is beginning to get recognized as a player on the global space research scene. The economic prowess of these powerhouses, it is said, affords them the opportunity to spend some money on these projects. For many who have this opinion, space research is something a country should do if it has “spare cash”. The corollary of this standpoint is that so-called underdeveloped or lower-cadre developing countries should not dabble into this field. They have to deal with kwashiorkor and malaria, get their population educated, and get help to boost their predominantly rural, small-scale agricultural output- these sorts of things. Satellites can come later.
The view that launching satellites for use in developing countries represents a misplacement of priorities may be true in certain cases. Some countries do not have enough to cater for basic needs. But does this apply to all nations which are described in economic terms as “developing”? I think not.
Nigeria, which can be comfortably described as a developing country has a small but active space science sector. The National Space Research Development Agency (NSRDA) was set up by the government of Nigeria to front the nation’s space ambitions. Although reference has been made to Nigeria’s entry into the space race by virtue of its launching several satellites into space beginning with the NigSat-1 in 2003, there is no sign of a competitive drive from the NSRDA. Rather, the launching of the satellites clearly signifies a desire to aid the development of Nigeria by collecting geophysical and meteorological information, as well as improving information and telecommunications services. A survey of public opinion in Nigeria may reveal the prevalence of a disapproving attitude towards the government’s space ambitions. Not surprisingly, those who declare the launching of satellites into space a waste of precious resources tend to be the least aware of the benefits accruing from the move to situate these satellites in space.
Nigeria’s economy has already begun to reap the benefits of its small-scale space program. The mapping of Nigeria’s landscape has provided vital reference material for policy makers who are able to make more detailed and accurate plans for interventions, especially in the agricultural sector. Natural disasters such as floods have been predicted using data gathered from these satellites, and measures taken as a result have averted food shortage in a number of instances. Telecommunications companies have also benefited from the expansion of the network of satellites which aid the transmission of signals between various ends. Various sectors have taken part in the opportunities provided by the emergence of potentially new communication channels. Internet service provision has also been made easier. From banks to cybercafés, individual users to government agencies and corporate organizations, these satellites have helped in some meaningful way to improve the conditions of, and prospects for business.
Some of these gains may never have been made if the appeal to focus on more basic priorities overcame the determination to grow Nigeria’s nascent space research program. Drinking these results entirely from foreign feeding bottles would have remained the status quo.
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