By - Tobi Idowu
South African Mandla Maseko first shut into world consciousness in 2013 as a 25-year-old dreamer who beat off stiff competition from one million other entrants from 75 countries to be selected as one of the 23 people to travel in a US-based space academy’s hour-long sub-orbital trip on the Lynx Mark II spaceship. The scheduled 103-kilometres flight, which would certainly have made Maseko the first black African in space, was planned for the year 2015.
Maseko’s first thoughts after his selection were the “firsts” achieved by the US first black president, Barrack Obama and South African first African president, Nelson Mandela. His giddy thoughts didn’t stop at the great first feats of the two beloved leaders. Maseko even imagined a conversation with Mandela, who had just recently died at the time.
Coincidentally, his proposed journey to space, alongside 22 others, had been announced few hours after the announcement of Mandela’s eternal journey to afterlife. The former anti-apartheid hero had died on December 5, 2013.
“I’ve run the race and completed the course, now here is the torch,” Maseko conceived the former leader telling him. “Continue running the race and here is the title to go with it, go be the first black South African in space.”
Modest background, lofty dreams
A “typical township boy,” Maseko grew up in Soshangave township, near more glamorous and popular city of Pretoria. He was born to parents of modest means, a school cleaner and an auto tool maker. Alongside his parents, his four other siblings knew about his sometimes starry-eyed ambitions and wild dreams, but believed so much in his determination to excel. His mother revealed she knew she was having a star child even when he was in her womb.
“While I was pregnant with Mandla, I knew I was going to give birth to a star,” she had stated. Agreeing with their mother, Mhlope, her younger sister, had also enthused, “I don’t know what comes after space. I’m sure if there was something he would go.” For Maseko, he knew he just had to take the few chances that came his ways.
He had planned to study aeronautical engineering and qualify as a space mission specialist, and eventually go on to replicate the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong’s feat, by landing there. And in fact, he would also plant his own country’s flag, South Africa, on the moon.
He would later tell BBC his plans to say a memorable word in the space. “I hope I have one line that will be used in years to come – like Neil Armstrong did.”
But he was only able to get enrolled to study civil engineering in the college. Still he could not meet up with the monetary demands of his academic pursuit. Consequently he had to put his studies on hold, and his dreams were thrown into jeopardy.
A leap from a wall to the space
Maseko’s scheduled flight to the space literally began from a leap from the wall of his parents’ house. As part of qualifying requirements, the competition organisers had asked participants to submit a photograph of themselves jumping from any height.
Firstly, he wanted to take his own leap from his parents’ three-bedroom house, but was stopped by his mother, who feared he might break his legs in the process. He later settled for the house’s six feet perimeter wall and helped by a friend to capture his jump with a mobile phone camera. The picture, alongside success at a gruelling physical and aptitude tests organised by AXE Apollo Space Academy, helped him secure a seat on the scheduled rocket to the space.
He would later spend a week at the Kennedy Space Academy in Florida where he skydived and undertook air combat and G-force training. He even had a chance to meet and pose for pictures with US astronaut “Buzz Aldrin”, who was the second man ever to set foot on the moon after Neil Armstrong as part of the 1969 Apollo 11 space mission. He recalled the encounter as being surreal. “This is how it feels to be out in space,” he beamed in pride.
Maseko’s would be trip held his country’s in spell. His younger sister, Mantombi, would often be asked by neighbours about it on her way from school. They’d ask her, “What is space? What is space?” To which she would reply, “A very unique place,” and added “space is a very special place.”
Four years wait in vain for space trip and tragic death
While 2015 came and went, the proposed trip never materialised. For years nothing was heard of the trip any more. But for his sudden mention in the news, Maseko had gone underground. Meanwhile, while he waited for the trip, Maseko went to train as a private pilot and became a corporal in the South African National Defence Force (SANDF). He also engaged in community works and public speaking, encouraging young ones.
Fours years after his scheduled trip, he, now 30, was announced dead by the local media. His death, in a bike accident, was later confirmed by a family statement.
“It is with deep sadness that the Maseko family confirms that Mandla Maseko tragically passed away in a bike accident last night, July 6 2019,” a family spokesperson, Sthembile Shabangu said in a media release.
For Maseko, popular known in his native South Africa as the “Spaceboy” and “Afronaut”, his space trip would have meant more as he would be able to inspire youth in Africa, and the world over.
“I wanted to do something that will motivate and inspire the youth of South Africa and Africa as a whole, and hopefully to some extent, the youth worldwide, and show that it doesn’t matter what background you come from, you can have whatever you want as long as you put hard work and determination into it,’ he had said in the interview with the BBC.
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