Lunacy! What planet are they on?

Published by The Mail on Sunday (17th April, 2016)

African nations that have received billions of pounds in British aid to combat poverty and starvation are spending vast sums on launching rockets into space and astronomy research.

Nigeria – given more than a £1billion by Britain between 2010 and 2015 – has pledged that an astronaut will be in space by the end of the next decade.

The country has already sent six satellites into orbit. Two were built in Britain. The first one cost £10million and was launched in Russia.

‘The space programme is very important for a country like Nigeria,’ said Dr Ogbonnaya Onu, the country’s minister of science and technology. A Nigerian delegation is due to visit China this month to discuss plans for Africa’s first manned space mission.

Nigerian officials have defended their space schemes as a ‘key to development’ – crucial for analysing climate patterns to improve agriculture and for tracking the Boko Haram terror group. But there has been criticism over launching space adventures when two-thirds of Africans live on little more than £1-a-day.

There is a space programme too in Ethiopia, one of the world’s poorest countries. It has developed East Africa’s first observatory, in hills above the capital Addis Abba. The £3.5 million research centre, with two one-metre telescopes, was built by private donors, but running costs were taken over last month by the Ethiopian government.

The Ethiopian Space Science Society is investigating a second site for a bigger observatory and wants to launch satellites within a decade.

Britain is a major donor to Ethiopia, handing over more than £300 million this year despite concerns over human rights.

Elsewhere on the continent Ghana – given £73 million-a-year in UK aid – has launched a Space Science and Technology Institute to co-ordinate projects and ‘develop the nation’s space talents’. Kenya and Gabon are pursuing similar space schemes.

South Africa, which established a space agency six years ago, is building the powerful Square Kilometre Array telescope with Australia. This is a huge cluster of radio dishes and antennae in the Karoo desert.

The revelations – underlining the speed of change in Africa – follow past concern over British aid funding for India when it was developing a major space programme that included a mission to Mars.

UK Government figures show that between 2009 and 2014 Britain gave Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa more than £4 billion in foreign aid.

Jonathan Isaby, chief executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said: ‘It is deeply depressing that Ministers still think it appropriate to be sending taxpayer-funded aid to countries that can afford their own space programmes.’

A Government spokeswoman said no British aid was spent on helping developing countries put people into space.

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