These high school girls are launching Africa’s first private satellite

Wmc Fbomb Karl Schoemaker 12219
Image provided by Karl Schoemaker

In March 2019, the first private African satellite will be rocketed into space, thanks to a group of school girls based in Cape Town, South Africa. These girls are part of the nonprofit Meta Economic Development Organisation’s (MEDO) Women in STEM program, which originally launched in 2015. This group of 14 female students, trained by satellite engineers from Cape Peninsula University of Technology, will launch the satellite with the mission to collect information for agriculture and food security for the continent.

Recently, 17-year-old Brittany Bull, a member of the student group, told the FBomb about how she and her peers made this satellite and why it’s so important that women are included in STEM fields.

The FBomb: How did you first become involved with South Africa’s Meta Economic Development Organisation’s STEM project? What has your experience been like?

Brittany Bull: I was referred to the MEDO space program by my then physics teacher. I was in the tenth grade when I participated in my first ever Space Prep workshop. That first experience was definitely the one that got me hooked. My experience has been a roller-coaster of discovery. Space Prep has shown me that heading into STEM was a viable career because I could see females like me being engineers, scientists, and academics in the STEM field. It also showed me that I am capable of doing whatever I set my mind to. Since then I have grown holistically by working with diverse mentors and also having new experiences regardless of the preconceived notions of others.

In March, your team is launching Africa’s first private space satellite. What will this satellite actually do? How it will affect people's daily lives?

The main objective of the satellite is to monitor agriculture and flora patterns on the African continent while monitoring how weather patterns affect those things. The data the satellite collects will be used to help the largest sector on the continent, agriculture, by sharing vital information about the crops, weather, and flora with farmers and all other stakeholders, like, for example, local governments and emergency services.

In half a century of space travel, no black African has journeyed to outer space. Do you believe the world might be seeing the blossoming of an African space travel program?

I believe the world will be seeing much more than an African space travel program, but also the blossoming of a space industry that will contribute tremendously to the advancement of space. A prime example of this is the test picture that the South African MeerKAT telescope took of the center of the universe. It's the clearest resolution picture of the center of the universe to date. That came from a test from a telescope that is the precursor to a much bigger African telescope project: The SKA Project. I believe Africa will be at the forefront of the space industry in the years to come.


How do you think emphasizing STEM in African education could help the continent’s development more generally?

Emphasizing STEM in an African setting will help equip Africans with the knowledge they need to empower themselves, giving them the ability to creatively solve problems on the continent. By educating the continent in STEM fields, we may be able to usher in a whole new generation of innovators that can change not only Africa but the world as well.

Most of the members of your team of teen girls are of color, yet STEM fields are notoriously dominated by white men. Why do you think it's so important for more people of different identities, especially women of color, to get involved with STEM?

I think it's important not only for women of color but for all people to have fair representation in the field of STEM. Everyone has different backgrounds and perspectives; this creates diversity and this diversity in thinking creates diversity in terms of how we as individuals would tackle a particular problem. This breeds innovative solutions that we would not have had if we didn't have a diverse group of people working in a particular sector.

What more can be done to actively attract women to STEM?

I believe it is enough to just show younger women that they are already represented in the STEM industry. From personal experience, I can say that just seeing two or three women of color thriving in the STEM field gave me the courage I needed to pursue this path myself. I may not be following their exact paths, but their influence allowed me to have the courage to just begin.

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