the first african in space
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Educational Benefits of Space Science

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Science drives technological innovation and technological innovation drives economic growth. Mark Shuttleworth's fortune is good evidence for this: physics research allowed computers to be developed. Physics research produced high-speed communications across the globe. Computers and communications technology allowed Internet technology, which Mark exploited to become a billionaire. Science, and physics in particular, allowed the development of cell phones, of television, of medical applications like X-rays and an endless list of other innovations, which have revolutionised our lives. Rich countries are rich because they can sell and use their innovations. Without Science we have no technology, without Science we have no economic growth, without Science we are politically at the mercy of technologically advanced countries.

And yet, when the future of South Africa depends critically on Science and technological innovation, most South Africans do not have the opportunity, or avoid the opportunity, of studying and appreciating Science.  The objective of this research project is to investigate effective ways of promoting interest in Science and, at the same time, to provide opportunities for people to appreciate Science.

The research will involve surveying samples of the population before and after Mark's trip into space. We will be assessing interest in and knowledge about Science and particularly Space Science in these surveys. Participants will be asked to identify facts or aspects of the awareness program that that they found most interesting and will be questioned on how this information will influence decisions. We also plan to implement a longer-term monitoring program in schools with the goal of supporting Science teachers and measuring the impact of various outreach activities.

My main research area is Astrophysics -- the physics of stars and the universe as a whole. Many people like to know "what's out there" but most do not believe that such "exotic" research can affect them in at least two important ways. Firstly, this kind of exotic research invariably leads to interesting technological applications (remember the computer from the first paragraph!) and secondly, if South Africans note that we can lead the way in Astrophysics, perhaps they will realise that we can lead the way in other areas of Science and Technological innovation. I believe Mark Shuttleworth's successes and his bold trip into space will also inspire South Africans to "Dream Big" (and to "Dream Science and technology"!). Assisting with his project is thus important for the future of Science in the country. 

The South African government, along with foreign investors, are currently building the largest telescope in the Southern Hemisphere  (a twin to the largest in the world). The Southern African Large Telescope will provide unsurpassed opportunities for Southern African Scientists to do cutting edge research into areas such as planets beyond our solar system, black holes and the birth of stars like our sun. It is our duty to ensure that more Southern Africans can appreciate the results of this exciting project and the research project surrounding Mark's trip will give valuable insight into how this can be achieved.

It is often claimed that Astrophysics and Space Science can be used to promote Science awareness but little research into the effectiveness of Science awareness programs has been undertaken. A survey carried out by one of NASA's Education Forums showed that 1000 participants surveyed after an eclipse event "showed a significant increase in the knowledge they gained regarding the sun and space science". It will be interesting to see if a science awareness program in South Africa will have a similar impact and it will be interesting to identify which facts or aspects of the awareness program are most successful in promoting Science education.