Travelling the galaxy
By Helen Swingler
When University of Cape Town (UCT) alumnus and space scientist Barbara Ojur gazes at the night sky, she’s amazed that humanity has managed to leverage aerodynamics and the general environment of space to do so much so fast. But as humans reach for new territories, we should leave some things at home. “We shouldn’t repeat our mistakes anywhere else in our galaxy.”
UCT SpaceLab MPhil graduate (2018) Ojur is also a part-time model, fitness blogger, runner and full-time software engineer. She spoke to UCT News.
Helen Swingler (HS): You were just 17 when you started a BSc(Eng) in Electrical and Computer Engineering at UCT. Did you have a map for your future?
Barbara Ojur (BO): I can’t fully say that I knew what I was getting myself into, but I just trusted the fact that engineering had maths and physics and I enjoyed those two courses. Then I was introduced to the world of coding and circuits, which I love. For [my] master’s I stumbled upon an MPhil in Space Studies. Within a few days the course convenor got a hold of me and from his first communication I could tell that this was meant to be.
HS: What is space science and how does the field differ from astronomy and cosmology?
BO: I believe space science encompasses astronomy and cosmology – they are subsets of space science. The space sector is very broad and made up of various components. For instance, astronomy deals with the study of planets, asteroids and other celestial bodies, such as stars, among other things. To study these bodies astronomers need to leverage technology built by engineers from different backgrounds; an example that helps us study celestial bodies outside of Earth’s atmosphere are satellites.
Remote-sensing satellites help astronomers obtain visual data of objects in space that would be near to impossible to see and study from Earth’s point of view. Such information is valuable because it influences their research and guides their deductions about how they and we see the galaxy and the objects in it. Some satellites are commissioned to obtain visual data from a planet for several years to build up a more accurate profile of what is being studied. If we look at an Earth-observation satellite called Suomi NPP – in just a year, between 2012 and 2013, it was able to build up a beneficial profile of our planet’s plant life for scientists. Such research is highly impactful and helps us monitor change, whether it be degradation or regeneration.
HS: You believe space studies can play a role in developing Africa and the world. Would you elaborate? Many might say there are other, more important needs.
BO: Space science/studies can play a huge role in Africa and one could say it already does. People use their smartphones daily without even thinking about the information they’re receiving. One obvious example is the navigational aspect embedded into many smartphones. To pinpoint where you are or direct you to a certain destination, your phone is fed information from an array of navigational satellites. We are familiar with GPS, constructed by the United States, but there are different systems such as GLONASS (Russian) and BeiDou (Chinese), to name just two. Many businesses and people benefit from the fact that they can see remote destinations from the palms of their hands, and this is indicative that interacting with space is positive.
“Using space-related technology we could alleviate issues such as food security and crimes against humanity.”
Using space-related technology we could alleviate issues such as food security and crimes against humanity, as past projects have done. That said, it’s hard to jump to developing infrastructure for space when basic needs in our continent are not being met: access to clean water, housing and safety. We need to focus on uplifting our continent; however, we should also be open to the fact that the issues we want to solve can be solved in ways we’re not familiar with, for example through space technology. Being open to ideas from different sectors allows us to tackle issues in elegant ways, and if we as Africans come up with the ideas, it allows us to build African solutions for African problems.
HS: Have you been following Elon Musk’s recent SpaceX explorations and his endeavours in space? Any thoughts?
BO: Elon Musk is one of a kind and a pioneer in his space (excuse the pun). He has proven so much to us concerning human capability. As much as I am impressed with his work and follow it avidly, I hope that as we try and reach new territories, both physically and within our imaginations, that we don’t transfer our bad mistakes to these new areas. We’ve done a lot of adverse things to our world that shouldn’t be repeated anywhere else in our galaxy. I hope we approach travel and the possibility of inhabiting other planets ethically. The excitement of exploring should not cause our planet, Earth, to suffer in the pursuit of greatness. Only time will tell what will happen with Elon’s many projects, but his “I can do anything” attitude is something we all could learn from.
HS: Are people intimidated when you tell them that you’re studying space science? Is it a conversation starter or dampener?
BO: Yes, all the time. When I first told a family member what I was studying, their first reaction was, “So do you want to go to space?” I’m surprised by the number of people in other spheres who have an interest in space. Before I studied an MPhil in Space Studies, I would not have been able to hold conversations with people who had, but for some reason people I meet can – and it’s quite incredible. I’m often posed with questions about the moon landing and parallel universes, just to mention two. One thing that I did learn in the course is that space is embedded into our daily lives –whether through television series or fashion trends, clothing and even the look and feel of the cars we drive. So even though space may be a foreign concept for some people, its presence is felt and people are interested in it.
HS: Is space science transforming vis-à-vis women and women of colour?
BO: It is, slowly. I think it’s probably on the same level as the engineering sector. Women and women of colour have done remarkable things for space and space travel. The movie Hidden Figures [about three African-American women mathematicians who played a key role in putting astronaut John Glenn into orbit] highlighted that fact. We still have a role to play in this sector and in other sectors as well. Being able to attend conferences organised by [the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs] UNOOSA and just being in the presence of astronauts, space technology manufacturers, distributors and my classmates has further echoed to me that space is very inclusive.
“People and companies are always so ready to help. They want to engage and open doors for you.”
People and companies are always so ready to help. They want to engage and open doors for you, which is an unusual thing to experience when you just start out in a new sector. For my final-year project, I got help from a retired engineer. He was helpful and ready to point me to different people and resources whenever I needed help. I have also met some powerful women who lecture at prestigious global institutions who are accepted and given the honour they deserve regardless of gender, race or ethnic background because of their work ethic. Space is a global village and we’re technically all foreigners – one race or one group in space – so I think that’s why this sector leverages support from everyone in order to solve issues.
HS: What do you think about when you look up at the night sky and the realm of space?
BO: That depends on the night, I guess, but whenever I see the moon, I’m reminded of the moon landing and how our dreams can be actualised. I am also just amazed that we have managed to leverage the aerodynamics and the general environment of space to do so much in such a short period.
HS: Where are you working now?
BO: Right now I’m working as a software engineer. I am also interested in application development, so I’m getting certified to be an Android developer. I model part time and I am also interested in health and fitness, so I post videos regularly and try to run as many races as I can.
HS: Do you have anything else to share in the context of Women’s Month, or otherwise?
BO: I think we as women should not be afraid to try new things and explore different territories. We are stereotypically described as multitaskers – and that’s one of the few stereotypes that I can relate to. We all need to live our lives and be who we were designed to be. We should stop trying to mimic others; take lessons and advice from others, but don’t forget to add your own flavour to what you do. The more we truly are who we are meant to be, the more we attract the right people and situations for us. So, with that being said, I think we should celebrate [one another] and build [one another] up so that our joy and purpose can allow others to thrive and find their place and mark in this world and beyond. Many great leaders, such as Nelson Mandela, have echoed that we all need to be great and not shy away from it.
Image: Barbara Ojur