The Ethiopian Space Science Society: From “Crazy People’s Club” to the Second Growth and Transformation Plan

13405366_1548538585455424_1792951254_oby Boris Brković

Millennia ago, “on the borders of the upper Nile, … a black race of men … organized the complicated system of the worship of the stars, considered in relation to the productions of the earth and the labours of agriculture.”  This is how Volney, in his 1926 work Ruins of Empires, describes the origin of Ethiopian astronomy. A fascination with the stars is unsurprising given the country’s proximity to the equator, its extensive plateaux, rising more than 4,600 meters above sea level, and the dry weather conditions in many regions, making it one of the best places on Earth to observe the star-spangled dome above our heads.

Space science and technology are not necessarily the first words that jump to mind, however, when one considers a country that has weathered extreme periods of economic, social and political hardship and is still trying to find its way up the ladder to prosperity. Despite the many daunting tasks that lie ahead, the Ethiopian Space Science Society (ESSS) was founded in 2004 by a group of visionaries with the mission “to build a society with a highly developed scientific culture that enables Ethiopia to reap the benefits accruing from space science and technology.”

The Society’s establishment attracted criticism early on, due to the fact that the country’s people were poverty-stricken and battling malnutrition with memories of ravaging famine ever-present. It did not take long for the ESSS to become known as the “crazy people’s club,” as many believed that the effort and resources dedicated to space science would be better spent elsewhere. As Solomon Belay, Director of the Entoto Observatory and Research Center (EORC), relates in an interview for The Japan Times: “People said we were crazy, the attention of the government was to secure food security, not to start a space and technology program. Our idea was contrary to that.”

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Over the past decade, a handful of space-science enthusiasts have overcome these adversities and managed to change the
perceptions of many, both in the government and among the wider public. Today, ESSS comprises some 15,000 members, with nineteen branch offices located in different universities across the country and more than fifty clubs in schools intended to inspire the youth. The Society works tirelessly to increase the number of its clubs and branches in order to promote the use of space science, tailored to suit the needs of the Ethiopian environment, with the ultimate goal of supporting the economy, social services, land resource management and the protection of the environment.

The Society’s hard work has culminated in the construction of the USD 3 million Entoto Observatory and Research Centre, financed by Mohammed Almoudi, an Ethiopian-Saudi businessman, without resorting to the use of government funds and international aid. Against a picturesque backdrop with herdsman on horseback and farmers leading oxen dragging plows, high above the crowded streets of Addis Ababa, I recently had the chance to meet with the members of ESSS and researchers of the Observatory.

At the 3,200 meter summit of Mount Entoto lay two dome-house telescopes. During the visit, Ghion Ashenafi, an electrical engineer at EORC, explained the details of the telescope. According to Ashenafi, the observatory has become one of the most coveted places at which to view Orion’s belt as it appears larger and more pronounced here than from other parts of the Northern Hemisphere. Next to EORC is situated a research center so new that the chairs and computers are still covered in plastic wrap. Dr. Tulu Besha Bedada, Head of the Earth Observation Division, elaborated on the graduate programs offered by the center in collaboration with Addis Ababa University. The EORC offers study programs in the fields of astronomy and astrophysics, space science, remote sensing and geodesy.

While reflecting on the remote sensing division, Besha noted: “We have an MSc and PhD program in remote sensing and our curriculum gives our students the capability to use remote sensing for a wide array of applications: precision agriculture, drought monitoring, monitoring climatic variability, resource monitoring, precipitation. They can integrate all remote sensing applications from thermal to radar sensors. We will continue producing young graduates and in a reasonable time we can raise the capacity of Ethiopia to a significant level.”

Through the establishment of EORC and its postgraduate programs, ESSS hopes to kick-start the development of “all space science and technology needs … by 2025,” especially where “satellite science and technology” are concerned.  The next step in the development of the research center will therefore be the establishment of its very own satellite science and technology division.

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When asked what would it mean for the country and its stakeholders if Ethiopia were to launch an indigenous spacecraft into Earth’s orbit, Besha replied: “The first thing is national pride. National pride is a part of our mission. The second thing is the definite need for Earth observation technologies. The applications could focus on precision agriculture as that is where our national GDP is. Tackling our national issues would be a strong plus for our stakeholders and the government. This is to be perceived in combination with national pride, it is a synergy. National pride and national capacities are inseparable and one drives the other.” The ambitions of Ethiopian space development are clear; the country is striving to bridge the “stratospheric divide” and enter the space arena.

These positive developments were recently recognized by the Ethiopian government, who transferred the entirety of EORC, together with its staff, to the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) on March 5, 2016. This transfer was a deliberate move to secure the sustainable development of EORC. During the signing ceremony, Abiy Ahmed, minister of MOST, stated: “The government is fully aware of the fact that space science, education and research is not anymore a luxurious activity to be left to the industrialized nations. The world with no exception is prone to an extreme form of space science which can have significant effects on many sophisticated ground- and space-based technological systems. In this context, the Ethiopian government renewed its commitment to strengthen, expand and popularize science, technology innovation, education and research all over our country in line with the Growth and Transformation Plan.”

The journey of Ethiopian space science and her scientists is a story of passion. A group of individuals, brought together by a common fascination with the vastness and mystery of outer space, who have triumphed over all adversities and adversaries, transforming from the “crazy people’s club” into a full-fledged space-technology program, integrated into the country’s Second Growth and Transformation Plan. Such noble initiatives as these might foster the development of a global consciousness such as that described by Edgar Mitchell, Apollo 14 astronaut, who, when reflecting on his view 250,000 miles from Earth, once said: “You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty.”

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