No one in Mandla Maseko’s family has ever stepped outside South Africa, but the young township DJ is set to rocket into space next year.
From the dusty district of Mabopane, near Pretoria, 25-year-old Maseko has landed a coveted seat to fly 103km into space next year, after winning a competition organized by a US-based space academy.
He beat 1 million other entrants from 75 countries to be selected as one of 23 people who will travel on an hour-long sub-orbital trip on the Lynx Mark II spaceship.
The former civil engineering student — who was forced to put his studies on hold because he could not pay the fees — will experience zero gravity on a journey that normally costs US$100,000 and is on course to become the first black African to enter space.
The “typical township boy,” who still lives at home with his parents and four siblings, was named one of the winners on Dec. 5, a few hours after the first black South African president, Nelson Mandela, died.
In his exhilaration, Maseko imagined a conversation with Mandela.
Maseko said he thought the late president would have told him: “I have run the race and completed the course, now here is the torch. Continue running the race and here’s the title to go with it.”
His improbable journey from a middle-class township to the thermosphere started with a leap.
The initial entry requirement for competitors was to submit a photograph of themselves jumping from any height. His first choice was the roof of his parents’ three-bedroom house, but his mother, Ouma, refused, fearing that it was too high. So he settled for the house’s 2m-high perimeter wall and a friend captured the feat on a mobile phone. The picture has helped propel Maseko, who works part-time as a DJ at parties, to new heights.
He secured his seat on the rocket after grueling physical and aptitude tests in the contest organized by AXE Apollo Space Academy, which is sponsored by Unilever and space tourism firm the Space Expedition Corporation.
His family said they never doubted that the one-time altar boy at a local Anglican church, who now sings with a local township gospel choir, would be a high-flier.
“While I was pregnant with Mandla, I knew I was going to give birth to a star,” Ouma said.
His 18-year-old sister, Mhlophe, agrees: “I don’t know what comes after space. I’m sure if there was something, he would go.”
Born to a school cleaner and an auto tool maker in Soshanguve Township near Pretoria, Maseko’s neighbors are high-fiving him for putting South Africa’s townships on the “galactic map.”
His long-term plans are to study aeronautical engineering and qualify as a space mission specialist with the ultimate dream of planting the South African flag on the moon.
South African Minister of Science and Technology Derek Hanekom sees Maseko “as a role model to the future generation of space professionals and enthusiasts.”
His experience could not have come at a better time “when Africa is gearing up its space ambitions” as host to the world’s biggest and most powerful radio astronomy telescope, Hanekom said.
Maseko has already spent a week at the Kennedy Space Academy in Florida, where he skydived and undertook air combat and G-force training.
While there, he met and posed 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.
For Maseko, the encounter was magical.
“This is how it feels to be out in space,” he recalled thinking at the time.