South Africa abuzz as 'Afronaut' launches into space

Open a newspaper or turn on a radio here, and they're all talking about the same thing: the young millionaire who is paying the cash-strapped Russian space program $20 million for a high-flying adventure.

But Mark Shuttleworth, insists he's more than just a "space tourist;" and that he won't spend his time there just gazing at stars. He prefers to think of himself as the first "Afronaut."

The admitted "computer geek" has commissioned several South African universities to create experiments, including one related to AIDS, which he and the other two crew members can perform while in space. He will also test the growth of stem cells in zero gravity and measure the effect of weightlessness on the body, and do a project looking at immune system antibodies.

Additionally, he says he wants to use his trip to space to inspire South African children to take more interest in math and science and has launched an educational foundation called "Hip2B2," which translates as "Hip to be Square."

In classrooms across South Africa, students have latched onto Mr. Shuttleworth's mission. In Lyda Smith's 12th grade science class at Vorentoe Secondary School in Johannesburg, students say Shuttleworth's trip has inspired them to take a closer look at the stars and the sky.

"It's pretty cool," says Jonathan Brummer. "It's amazing that this young guy can start a business in his garage and then buy a ticket to outer space."

Mr. Brummer isn't the only South African who is caught up in the space frenzy. One local radio station has been playing "Rocket Man" by Elton John, while a local newspaper covered its front page with cartoons of Shuttleworth blasting into space, superhero-style.

Local media have pointed out, however, that the title of first "Afronaut" may in fact belong to another man, Patrick Baudry, a Frenchman who was born in Cameroon who flew on the US shuttle Discovery in 1985.

Interactive Africa, a South African public relations firm representing Shuttleworth, dismisses these claims, saying: "Mark is the first person who is going up under an African flag as an African citizen, and having grown up in Africa, we feel well qualified that he is the first African in space."

Prominent South Africans, including former President Nelson Mandela and current Vice President Jacob Zuma have agreed, saying that the trip of Shuttleworth, born in Cape Town, South Africa, is a great triumph.

"We are also proud of you because you are the first resident of the African continent to go into space," Mr. Zuma wrote. "This is a great achievement for the continent."

Zuma, however, may be slightly off the mark with his praise. Although raised in South Africa, Shuttleworth is not technically a resident of Africa. Although he retains his South African citizenship, last year he moved to London.

Still, Shuttleworth has worked to maintain ties to his mother country, serving on a presidential committee on technology and frequently traveling back to Cape Town. He also tried to turn this trip, which was initially mocked in South Africa as the indulgence of a rich playboy, into a AIDS awareness and educational campaign.

Mia Smith, another student in Mrs. Smith's class, who also thinks Shuttleworth's trip is pretty cool, says the computer entrepreneur is still a South African if his heart is here.

"Look at Penny Heyns [a South African Olympic swimmer who won two gold medals]," she points out. "She lives in Australia but she's still a South African."

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