Well, technically, Uganda has already gone to space. Despite a fire alarm causing delay on 6 November 2022, the country’s first satellite, PearlAfricaSat-1, was successfully launched into space on the morning of 7 November from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA’s Wallops space flight facility on Wallops Island, Virginia.
More recently however, Uganda has announced that it will use its newly launched satellite to conduct healthtech life-saving experiments up in space—on top of collecting more accurate data on weather forecasting, mineral mapping, agri-monitoring, and border security.
The Nile Post reported that the country will use the microgravity (weightlessness) provided by the satellite to perform advanced 3D biological printing of human tissue as part of an investigation into “how microgravity influences ovary function.”
The satellite, which has already landed on the International Space Station (ISS), will be monitored from the Mpoma ground satellite station in the capital Kampala.
Microgravity allows scientists to create high-quality bioprinted body organs, something that is not yet achievable on Earth. Printing organ structures in a state of weightlessness eliminates the need for scaffolding to support complex tissue shapes. 3D bioprinters use ‘bio-inks’ based on human cells to grow body tissues such as skin, bone, and even cartilage.
The idea of 3D bioprinting has been growing globally in the recent past, particularly after Russia sent its bioprinter to the ISS to carry out experiments for printing living human tissue in space back in 2018.
Equipped of an updated 3D bioprinter, the BioFabrication Facility (BFF), the project—which is spearheaded by three Ugandan engineers, Edgar Mujuni, Bonny Omara, and Derrick Tebusweke—could help thousands of patients who die from organ failure in the country.
“BFF is game-changing technology that could have significant implications for the future of human health and patient care on Earth,” John Vellinger, the executive vice president of in-space manufacturing and operations at Redwire, the company developing the technology, told Quartz.
Though Uganda is the latest country to launch into the ISS, by December 2021, 13 African countries had sent satellites into orbit with 125 new satellites being lined up for development by 2025 by 23 African countries.
Reports have revealed, including those from the BBC, that Blue Origin—Jeff Bezos’ spaceflight services company—is planning to take yet another step into the world of space tourism. Leaders from Blue Origin announced, at a press conference held on Monday 25 October, plans to create a commercial space station. And it’s thought to come sooner than you’d think.
The commercial space station, named ‘Orbital Reef’, is hoped to be in operation by the end of the decade. In marketing material released by the spacecraft company, the proposed station is described as a “mixed-use business park” in space and will be able to host up to ten people (a volume almost as big as the International Space Station [ISS])—you really can do remote work from anywhere these days. Orbital Reef is set to be built in low Earth orbit and will offer budding consumers an opportunity for research and tourism, says Blue Origin.
“The station will open the next chapter of human space exploration and development by facilitating the growth of a vibrant ecosystem and business model for the future,” it added.
“Seasoned space agencies, high-tech consortia, sovereign nations without space programs, media and travel companies, funded entrepreneurs and sponsored inventors, and future-minded investors all have a place on Orbital Reef,” the company further noted. Someone might be left out of the loop however—I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Elon Musk’s invitation got lost in the space mail.
Blue Origin’s initiative will be conducted in collaboration with Boeing and Sierra Space (backed by Redwire Space, Genesis Engineering Solutions and Arizona State University), both of which will contribute in building the space station by providing human and cargo transportation to the commercial station. Not only will the 32,000 square feet station be used as an ideal rest stop for Blue Origin customers but it will also offer an optimal location for “film-making in microgravity” as well as including a “space hotel.” Don’t worry, the hotel comes with a view.
Orbital Reef announced that its station will have large Earth-facing windows so that space tourists can “take in the beauty of our planet” and “experience the thrill of weightlessness in complete comfort.” At the press conference announcing the venture, both Blue Origin and Sierra Space declined to provide an estimate of the building costs—though we must assume it’s going to cost a pretty penny.
This proposal seems to come at the perfect time as NASA searches for options to replace the 20-year-old ISS; Boeing vice president and programme manager for the ISS John Mulholland said in a statement on the proposed commercial station, “This is exciting for us because this project does not duplicate the immensely successful and enduring ISS, but rather goes a step further to fulfil the unique position in low Earth orbit where it can serve a diverse array of companies and host non-specialist crews.”