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[LAGOS] Nigerian officials have denied charges by critics of the country’s planned space programme that such a programme is an expensive luxury that will not meet the country’s social needs.

The programme was launched in July, and the government has promised to support it with N3 billion (US$22.3 million) a year for the next three years.

The money will be used primarily to fund specialised training in the area of space technology, purchase and installation of equipment, and the funding of research activities.

Recently, for example, 15 Nigerian engineers that are intended to form the core of professionals for the take-off of the space project have been selected for training in the United States.

Since the programme was launched, it has come under strong attack from critics, particularly in the mass media. Some claim that it is intended to mask an ambitious defence programme, others argue that it may focus on projects such as placing a Nigerian on the moon that are irrelevant to the country’s social needs.

But President Olusegun Obasanjo has denied that he wants Nigeria, the most populous black country on earth, to launch rockets into space or even land a man on the moon. “Rather it is an adaptive programme intended to make use of what space research [carried out in other countries] has already established in areas such as remote sensing, weather forecasting and satellite communication,” he said during the inauguration of the Presidential Advisory Council on Science and Technology in Abuja on 1 August.

Ajayi Boroffice, chief executive of the National Space Research Development Agency (NSRDA), which is based in the Nigerian capital of Abuja and will be responsible for carrying out the new policy, says that critics have failed to distinguish between space exploration and space technology.

“The criticisms can be traced to the fundamental error of equating space exploration to space technology,” he says. “Space technology is about development, it is about combating poverty, it is about improving the lives of Nigerians.” Clarifying the intention of government, Nigeria’s Minister of Science and Technology, Turner Isoun has said the goal of the country’s national space programme is to solve socio-economic problems.

“I want to assure you that we are resolved to make a difference in utilising space and technology in the solution of our socio-economic problems,” he said last month. “We have been assured [by President Obasanjo] that the political will which produced this policy will be backed with financial will to make the space programme a success.”

Ekundayo Balogun, director of Centre for Space Science and Technology Education in Africa based in Ile-Ife in western Nigeria, says that his main interest in becoming involved with the space programme is that it will provide trained manpower in fields such as remote sensing/basic space science, satellite meteorology, satellite communications, and atmospheric sciences.

“I really don’t see why anyone should be jittery about government intentions,” says Balogun. “People have misconceptions that this programme is either about landing man in space or building rockets, and that is just not true.”

Nigeria first showed interest in space technology in 1976. But it wasn’t until 1996, when a national remote sensing centre was established in Jos, in the middle of the country, that concrete proposals began to take some shape. The space programme, however, got a major boost in May 1999 when Obasanjo, upon being sworn in as president, set up NSRDA with Boroffice as its first chief executive.

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