Do you have any examples of how the skills learned in building this complex astronomy system have been transferred into other disciplines?
Let me tell you about the call I received from the Minister of Trade, Industry and Competition, Ebrahim Patel, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, when hospitals were under severe logistical stress. He said: “With the engineers that you’ve had and success that you’ve delivered, would you take on the design and project manage the manufacture of ventilators?” I said “yes” without thinking about it. We immediately engaged with clinicians to understand their needs, were able to get some funding from the Solidarity Fund (established to support the national health response in the fight against COVID-19), and together with government’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) produced 20,000 ventilators which were donated to hospitals.
Has the SKA project helped diversify the local economy of the Karoo?
Yes. We bought 135,000 hectares of farmland in the Karoo as we needed a large buffer against radio frequency interference from phones, vehicles and so on. This effectively meant removing 16,000 sheep, or about R20 million per annum, from the local sheep farming economy. But we have put back far more through directly providing employment to over 100 locals, technical skills training and new opportunities in areas like construction. We absorbed laborers who from the farms we bought into SARAO. Our presence has led to the diversification of the local economy, mitigating an over-dependence on agriculture during a long period of drought. It is much easier to train local people, who are used to living in remote and difficult conditions, for example in splicing fibre, than it is to bring in people from cities like Cape Town or Johannesburg. Furthermore, we have placed mathematics and science teachers at the high schools in the surrounding rural towns and also provided students with bursaries and equipment.
We’ve now also got the MeerKAT National Park. I didn’t know how to manage 135,000 hectares of land, so we brought in the South Africa National Parks to create one of the biggest, new national parks in the country. So, there are environmental benefits too with farmland being managed back to its natural state.
We’ve seen the Webb space telescope project confront a systemic lack of diversity in the pool of scientists who have access to it. Has there been any similar concern at SARAO and the SKA?
Absolutely. Our original pool of engineers were largely white males coming from the defense industry. We’re tapering off from that legacy now as people leave by natural attrition and we can fill those positions. In five years’ time MeerKAT will be integrated with SKA—which requires an organizational shift. So we’re negotiating a kind of a transfer of key staff out of SARAO, my organization, and into the international observatory of the SKA. We’ll need fewer engineers and more in the data field. So the structure is changing and we’re introducing more diversity in the process.
How do you feel about private business in general getting into space exploration?
It pulls in resources you wouldn’t otherwise have, but it does also lead to conflicts. Elon Musk wants to put up 12,000 satellites to give comprehensive internet connectivity to everybody on the planet—his Starlink project. While we applaud this goal, these satellites are going to be noise for us as their signals are much stronger than what’s produced by bodies millions of light years away. We’re working with private operators so when they fly over the so-called astronomy geographic advantage area, they avert their beams. Starlink’s very cooperative, but some of the others aren’t. Fortunately, it’s the biggest one.
Are there any lessons here on how society should be thinking about overcoming other big challenges, such as climate change, for instance?
You’ve got to think big and forge a common vision. You also need people who initiate contact across boundaries; people who are able to look at it from the other discipline’s perspective. How could they benefit? They’ve got to be able to see how this collaboration is going to improve their situation too.
If you had all the resources at your disposal that you could imagine, what would be another sort of moonshot project you’d like to do?
It would be a project in energy, or energy storage. Something that always attracted me as a nuclear guy is the catalytic cracking of water to produce hydrogen as a byproduct of the waste heat from high temperature nuclear reactors. Effectively you get hydrogen for nothing. This was one of the value propositions of South Africa’s Pebble Bed Modular Reactor. However there are significant regulatory hurdles to clear before this can become a reality.
Marina Bidoli is a Brunswick Partner and Head of the firm’s South Africa office. Carlton Wilkinson is a Director in Brunswick’s New York office and the Managing Editor of the Brunswick Review.