By Chris Bishop
Africa has agreed to link the middle of nowhere to God knows where to help NASA in its space race.
The South African government agreed, on May 27, that the South African National Space Agency be allowed to set up an earth station, in partnership with NASA, to help to support human spaceflight to the moon Mars and beyond. It will be called a Deep Earth Station and will assemble a bunch of scientists and experts to support the existing network of similar sites in the United States, Spain and Australia, according to official papers.
“The station will benefit South Africa in, amongst others, the development of scarce skills and the growth of the science, engineering, technology and innovation sector,” says cabinet papers.
The new earth station will be built in a tiny dot on the South African map in the heart of one of the great, remote, wildernesses of Africa – the Karoo. It will be built near Majtiesfontein, in South Africa’s Western Cape, 195 kilometres from Cape Town. Remote areas, with little pollution, apparently make it easier to connect clearly with the stars.
The tiny town nestles into a vast expanse of largely untouched land and has a population just over 400. As yet, it is more famous for mohair farming and the castle turrets of the 120-year-old Lord Milner Hotel, where nearly one-in-five people in Majtiesfontein work , than it is for its future role in the space race.
The hotel, built in 1899 by the town’s Scottish railwayman founder James Logan, once played host to the Sultan of Zanzibar, Lord Randolph Churchill – the father of Winston Churchill – and the author of the Jungle Book, Rudyard Kipling. Two months ago it closed its doors, because of COIVD-19, for the first time since the days of Rudyard and Randolph in the 19th century.
“We don’t actually see a lot of people, they tend to stay in their houses,” says Werner Smit, the general manager of the Lord Milner Hotel in a recent interview with Cape Talk FM.
Work at the Deep Earth Station is likely to see the biggest influx of people and equipment into Majtiesfontein since the Anglo-Boer War when it was home to British 12,000 troops. By contrast, the scientists and engineers of the Deep Earth Station come in peace and in the hope that the Lord Milner Hotel will be open with enough beds to accommodate them.