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The first International Astronautical Congress (IAC) held on the African continent was a potent reminder that nations seek the benefits of space for many different reasons.

At an event commemorating the 40th anniversary of Apollo 8, former mission commander Frank Borman said, “The reason we went to the Moon on Apollo 8 was to beat the Russians.”


This swirling landscape of stars is known as the North America Nebula. In visible light, the region resembles North America, but in this image infrared view from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, the continent disappears.Photo Credit: NASA (Click image for full size.) 

I was reminded of Borman’s words while I spoke with Dr. Peter Martinez of South Africa and Dr. Adigun Abiodun of Nigeria during a special Masters with Masters event at the IAC. Both had to blaze their own career paths in aerospace because there were not well-trod paths to follow in their respective countries; neither country had the capability to put a rocket into orbit. The odds were against them, but each persevered.

They were initially drawn to space by different motivations. Peter said he considered himself “one of the products of Apollo”—he was inspired by astronauts like Boreman. Ade was an engineer with expertise in hydrology whose interest stemmed from the potential of space applications—he was interested in learning what role satellites could play in understanding water resources in Nigeria. Both went on to work extensively with the United Nations’ Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), with Ade even serving as its chairman for a time.

The aspirations they hold for their countries in space are rooted in practical benefits. In the United States, on the other hand, we periodically engage in public debate about the merits of space exploration as a national priority. If we’re no longer trying to beat the Russians (to paraphrase Borman), some ask if space exploration is still worth the cost when there are many competing priorities for public expenditures. Peter and Ade did not talk about space exploration as an abstract concept. Each want their people to reap the benefits that more mature space-faring nations take for granted.

A common theme at IAC among individuals I met from emerging space-faring nations was the need to build local capability in space. Many said they do not want to continue relying on existing space powers; they want their own engineers and their own facilities. An educated workforce builds broader capability within an economy that leads to the ability to improve society.

In a time of transition and uncertainty at NASA, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture. Peter and Ade reminded me that space’s power to inspire goes hand in hand with its power to improve the lives of millions in ways that many of us take for granted at this point. We can learn from them.

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