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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Ghanaian born top NASA scientist talks to BBC

Dr Ave Kludze, Nasa
Awe Kludze never imagined he would command a Nasa spacecraft

On the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth, BBC News asks one of Africa's pioneering scientists, Dr Ave Kludze, of the US space agency Nasa what inspired his stellar career and what he thinks of the standard of science teaching in Africa today.

As a young boy I was always very curious.

My parents didn't like to leave me at home alone, because they knew I would dismantle the radio.

Even at my friends' houses, I would try to take the television apart, to find out how it worked.

I never imagined I would have the opportunity to work for Nasa. Not with my background

But my life changed the first time I went to the airport in Accra. I saw an aeroplane landing and taking off.

I knew then that I wanted to be pilot.

From that day, everything I read was scientific. At school, I read science subjects.

My father wanted me to be a lawyer. But he supported my ambitions. So I was lucky.

But then, when I was 17, I found out that I could not fulfil my dream. I could not become a pilot.

The reason was that my brother, my father and my mother all wore glasses. This implied that, one day, I would wear glasses too. And indeed I do.

I was very disappointed.

Solar power

I decided to channel my energy elsewhere - into engineering.

I studied electrical engineering in the US, at Rutgers University, New Jersey.

Launch of Calipso satellite
The Calipso satellite, developed with Dr Kludze's help, launched in 2006

My intention was to return to Ghana, so I started to focus my mind on using solar energy to power appliances: Solar fridges, solar fans, solar freezers - solar everything.

The sun is for free, so I believe we have to use it in Africa. We have to work with the resources we have.

But instead of working on solar panels in Ghana, I got a job with Nasa, developing and flying spacecraft.

I never imagined I would have the opportunity to work for Nasa. Not with my background.

I remember watching the Challenger incident - when the shuttle disintegrated.

I visited the "American Centre", in Ghana, where I watched the tragedy on the news. Afterwards I wrote to Nasa and they replied to me.

They sent me pictures and documents on some of their spacecraft and I put them on my wall.

I still have these pictures today.

1966: Born in Hohoe, Ghana
1978: Attends Adisadel College, Cape Coast
1989: Studies electrical engineering at Rutgers University, USA
1995: Hired by Nasa
2004: Helps develop the Extravehicular Activity Infrared (EVA IR) camera for space-walking astronauts
2006: Becomes technical adviser to Nasa Office of the Inspector General
2006: Launch of the Calipso environmental satellite, for which Dr Kludze was a systems engineer

Now many years later, I have worked at Nasa headquarters, in Washington, as a requirements manager. I help Nasa to take strategic decisions.

President [George] Bush outlined his vision that Nasa would go back to the Moon by 2020, so the agency is working towards that.

I am working on the communication systems the astronauts will use on the Moon, and on Mars.

They will send back pictures live. I have to make sure we don't leave out any requirements. Things have moved on a long way from Apollo.

I have flown several spacecraft - including the Calipso satellite.

But I was not in orbit - I flew them from the ground, using robotic controls at the Nasa control centre.

African mission

People ask me: What has Nasa done for Africans?

But many of them have cell phones - which were developed with Nasa technology.

The cars they drive and the glasses they wear - all of these have benefited from Nasa technology. It trickles down to the ordinary man.

Nasa is not only concerned with space. We develop technologies for aeroplanes.

And our way of developing systems applies to all kinds of engineering projects.

If you had a water project, for agriculture, Nasa technology could make your project more efficient.

I think the younger generation in Ghana today have more opportunities than I did to become scientists.

CALIPSO satellite, artist's impression
Dr Kludze has "flown" Calipso from a Nasa control centre

I first saw a computer in the USA. Today, the younger generation have access to the internet - they can get any information they want.

The education I received in Ghana was very sound - it served me remarkably well at Rutgers.

But where African schools have a problem, is that they focus heavily on theory, whereas [universities] focus on the practical - solving real world problems.

If we can bring that practical element into African schools, then we have a lot of brilliant young minds who will benefit.

When I was growing up it was difficult for science drop-outs and those students who were unable to further their education.

There were few avenues for them to become useful members of society using their acquired scientific knowledge. They ended up doing other jobs.

Young Einsteins

But times have changed. In Ghana, I understand they are encouraging pupils to pursue science.

But the question is: After you graduate, do you have the necessary resources to go further?

When I grew up in Ghana, we ploughed the fields using cattle and hoes.

The last time I went home, we were still using them. So where are our engineers?

We need the governments to invest in technology. Then the educational institutes can follow.

When I grew up, my scientific role models were not Africans.

I admired people like Albert Einstein. I was amazed that he could be on our planet and yet he could tell us about different planets.

But today I know many successful African scientists. People like my friend Dr Ohene Frempong, of the Children's Hospital of Pennsylvania (CHOP). He works on sickle cell anaemia.

There are others who have done very well.

What are my remaining ambitions?

Well, I don't plan to go into space. I will leave that to the younger generation.

I will continue contributing to President Bush's vision - to go to the Moon, to Mars, and beyond.

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