Thursday, 12 April 2012

Pedantry... in... SPAAAAAAACE!!! (African edition)

Happy Yuri's Night! 51 years of humans not always being aerodynamically bound within Earth's atmosphere. 51 years since Yuri Gagarin became the first member of our species, of our whole genus, to enter space and orbit once around the planet.

This is basically nice, even if our human spacefaring achievements so far amount to only the maritime equivalent of rowing along the coast and occasionally heading out to a rock just off the coast within clear view of the shore. We have yet to venture into any deep waters, let alone land on new continents. But we've started and we're carrying on, which is important.

I had a vaguely related thought the other night, about the first African astronaut. I'm neither a nationalist nor an Africanist, but it's still something that seems interesting to me because it's a hair that can be split so many ways. All of the other populated continents have had clear, undeniable astro/cosmo/taikonauts of their own, but in the case of Africa, you really have to pay attention to definitions.

Consider Ham.

Ham was undeniably the first astronaut with any control over his vessel (even if the purpose of this wasn't communicated to him beforehand), beating Gagarin up by 2 and a half months, and he was clearly born in Africa, in Cameroon. But he wasn't human, so he doesn't have any bearing on "first human to..." contests. There are also legal questions that have not been answered to my satisfaction about his citizenship status at the time of his voyage to the stars.

Then consider Mark Shuttleworth.

Shuttleworth is a South African citizen, born, raised and resident here. And he does appear human. But he wasn't a proper astronaut, he was a "space flight participant," a space tourist, a mere passenger. If he counts as a real astronaut, then so do all the fruit flies, dogs, mice, rhesus monkeys and assorted others who beat Ham into space by up to 10 years.

(EDIT: I read in the paper the other day that Shuttleworth is no longer resident here. So that detracts a little bit from his claim here.)

Finally, consider Mike Melvill.

He's a real astronaut, having flown his rocket plane with even more direct manual control than most other astronauts. And he's human. And he was born in South Africa. But he left about as soon as he was able, living in the US for most of his life, and I don't think he's legally an SA citizen anymore. I've never heard him describe himself in terms of geography, so it may not even be part of his personal identity. So can we really count him as an African astronaut?

So, depending how you look at it, the title of First Human African Astronaut may still be up for grabs. Who wants it?