Humbulani Mudau, CEO of SANSA, Discloses Break-Down of SANSA’s Plans

Based on the extensive interview by Engineering News, the CEO of the South African National Space Agency (SANSA), Mr Humbulani Mudau, has expressed his intention to build on the previous success of his predecessors to cement the authority of SANSA in the space industry. To this end, the primary objective of the Space Infrastructure Hub project, with combines physical infrastructure and Big Data-driven technologies, will focus on mission development for future South African satellites, the development of satellite communications capabilities, and the development of local satellite navigation augmentation systems, which will increase the accuracy of global navigation satellite systems in South Africa and the Southern Africa region.

Furthermore, the Space Infrastructure Hub project will support the further development of the Space Weather Centre, providing uninterrupted 24/7 space weather services to the International Civil Aviation Organisation. Additionally, it will contribute to developing SANSA’s new deep-space ground station at Matijesfontein in the Western Cape province.

The Phase 1 of the hub project has been approved and allocated funding of ZAR 1.2 billion (USD 64.23 million) over the next two financial years, by the National Treasury, with ZAR 800 billion (USD 42.81 billion) allocated for this FY and ZAR 400 million (USD 21.59 million) to be disbursed for the 2024/25 FY.

According to the CEO, “We have just completed our first institutional review, and a panel of external experts looked at SANSA and compiled a report with findings and recommendations. This report said our structure was still relevant, so any adjustments in the coming years will be just tweaking it, not changing it. Furthermore, the institutional review was also obvious on two SANSA programmes which should be strengthened: Earth Observation and Space Engineering.”

Strengthening the Earth Observation and Space Engineering Segment

Speaking on strengthening the Earth Observation segment, the CEO further stated, “I consider EO to be the core programme for SANSA because It provides data essential to addressing a range of critical challenges facing our country. It is also essential to help us deal with extreme events, such as those linked to climate change, like the increasing frequency of severe floods in different parts of the country. So, it’s one of the areas I will focus on and building capacity in.” In addition, SANSA intends to collaborate with critical industries like mining and banking to explore potential Earth observation services and products that can be developed to augment its revenue streams.
On Space Engineering, the segment also focuses on the national satellite development programme initiative closely connected with the EO programmes to create, deploy, and manage a South African Earth observation satellite (or possibly multiple satellites). This is because satellites can only be designed once Space Engineering’s specialists know the user requirements. Thus, the SANSA EO segment is a crucial provider of such requirements as other government agencies, departments, universities, and private-sector business associations also have requirements to be considered.

“The satellite development programme needs a powerful internal systems engineering capability, so we’re focusing on developing our capacity,” Mr Mudau explained. Under the plan, SANSA Space Engineering is expected to assume the role of leading and supervising the satellite program through the implementation of a systems engineering framework. However, most of the manufacturing tasks, encompassing the design and production of the satellite’s systems and subsystems, will be delegated to the proficient private-sector space industry in South Africa. Additionally, local universities with space systems programs, such as the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) and the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), will contribute to the manufacturing process.

Moreso, this year, the responsibility for the country’s satellite assembly and testing facility, located at Houwteq in the southeast of Cape Town, is expected to be transferred from the state-owned Denel Defence Industrial Group to SANSA. The transfer, provisionally agreed upon by the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) overseeing SANSA and the Department of Public Enterprises overseeing Denel, has received the endorsement of the Minister of Finance. This transfer is scheduled to be completed by the end of the current calendar year. “But it will also be a developer and accelerator for young researchers and startup companies.” SANSA plans to upgrade Houwteq once it takes control of the facility.

Enhancing Collaborative Partnerships
According to Mr Humbulani Mudau, SANSA is committed to actively promoting and facilitating the growth of the South African private-sector space industry to the best of its capabilities. This approach mirrors the strategies employed by numerous space agencies worldwide, including the highly successful model of the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

“We’re going to look at what our mandate says,” he remarked. “That includes exploiting our space expertise: we can establish companies or institutes that can assist us in our work, or we can invest in such companies. This is a powerful instrument that SANSA has been given in the [SANSA] Act. In the immediate future, we’ll be developing an investment strategy.”

As part of the investment strategy, SANSA aims to involve private investors in its initiatives, as initially stated. The approach involves initiating projects with seed funding from the government and subsequently attracting private sector participation to take over and further develop these projects. Thus, The private sector has the potential to play a crucial role in enabling access to space, particularly in the development of a national space launch capability. Mr Humbulani Mudau highlighted that many countries, including Germany, Sweden, the UK, and even New Zealand, are pursuing their space launch capabilities. Notably, these endeavours are driven by private-sector initiatives facilitated by public-sector entities. For example, New Zealand hosts a commercial launch facility owned and operated by a US Nasdaq-listed company, Rocket Lab, through its New Zealand subsidiary. Rocket Lab utilises this facility to launch its internally developed Electron rocket, which can carry payloads of up to 300 kg into low Earth orbit.

“Arniston (south-east of Cape Town) is very favourably located for polar orbital launches, and, with almost no air traffic in the area, it has almost unlimited launch windows,” he pointed out. “We believe we can provide such launch services for Africa and our BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) partners. However, South Africa does not yet have the legal framework to facilitate the development of private-sector launch capabilities. We, SANSA, need to work closely with the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition, which is now developing a new space industry strategy and is looking at a new space Act, which would be very important in developing our local private-sector space industry. We’ll also need the necessary regulations to be developed.”

SANSA’s immediate objective is to assist the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) in its program focused on developing and testing suborbital sounding rockets. UKZN’s Aerospace Systems Research Institute, with backing from the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), is engaged in a project known as SAFFIRE, which aims to create a liquid-fueled rocket motor. Notably, UKZN successfully launched the Phoenix-1b Mk IIr sounding rocket in March 2021 and the Phoenix-1D vehicle in March 2023. Additionally, a launch for the Phoenix-1C is planned for this year.

Furthermore, the Phoenix rockets, utilising hybrid rocket motors, are launched from Denel’s Overberg Test Range (OTR) adjacent to Arniston. The forthcoming Phoenix-1C mission will carry an experiment from SANSA, as well as experiments from the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) and a private company. While the Phoenix rockets have not yet reached space, SANSA intends to assume partial control of the Overberg Test Range from Denel to ensure continued support for UKZN’s endeavours.

“Space Operations will be supporting deep-space missions,” he enthused. “The DSI has signed a Letter of Intent to support NASA’s upcoming Lunar missions. SANSA will be part of the Artemis programme, which will return astronauts, including the first woman and person of colour, to the Moon. It’s stimulating for us.” The construction of the new ground station in Matjiesfontein is primarily aimed at supporting the Artemis mission. However, SANSA envisions establishing additional facilities at Matjiesfontein in the future. Over time, Matjiesfontein is expected to serve as a backup location for the Hartebeesthoek facility.

Future Plans
Mr Humbulani Mudau aims to instill a transformative management culture within SANSA, fostering closer teamwork and cooperation within the organisation. Additionally, there will be a heightened emphasis on meeting the needs of the agency’s customers and clients. This approach intends to establish SANSA as a consistently high-performing agency, not just within the national context but also on the international stage. The ultimate objective is for SANSA to emerge as the leading space agency in Africa.

“Being a transformational leader means building a team that engages in mentorship and promotes entrepreneurship within the organisation, to encourage innovation, to allow our brilliant engineers to innovate and be rewarded,” he explains. “We want to create a strong corporate culture and to make it an honour to work for SANSA.”