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South African Mandla Maseko Was Never Going To Be An Astronaut

Yesterday, Mandla Maseko died in a tragic motorcycle accident. We've seen countless obituaries that describe him as the future first black South African in space, and we're not trying to disrespect his memory but to clear up misconceptions. Maseko was a DJ and a visionary and an inspiration, but he had not gone into space, and was (as far as we know) never going into space.

The story of Maseko as the first black South African* astronaut (or "afronaut" as he called himself) began in 2013 when he entered the Lynx Apollo Space Academy competition. The worldwide competition was a promotional campaign with Axe body spray that selected 23 people to become astronauts. The final winners were going to be flown 62 miles up on sub-orbital space missions aboard the XCOR Lynx spaceplane, and Maseko was one of those winners.

In December 2013, Maseko and the other winners were flown to the US to attend space camp in Orlando, Florida. He went through challenges like skydiving, G-force training, building and launching a rocket, and a written aptitude test.

Maseko spoke highly of the experience, saying, "I'm not trying to make this a race thing but us blacks grew up dreaming to a certain stage. You dreamed of being a policeman or a lawyer but you knew you won't get as far as pilot or astronaut. Then I went to space camp and I thought, I can actually be an astronaut."

Mandla "Spaceboy" Maseko made for such an inspirational story that apparently no one checked up on him until he died, so here are the facts.

The flights were meant to take place in 2015, two years after the contest, pending successful testing of the XCOR Lynx spaceplane. That's where the problems come in because the flights never happened. The Lynx spaceplane never passed those tests.
Model of an XCOR Lynx space plane
in front of Mediamarkt Amsterdam
(via Wikimedia)
The first flight of the spaceplane was pushed from 2015 to 2016, but in May 2016, XCOR stopped the development of the Lynx and laid off approximately one-third of the staff. XCOR shifted to developing a liquid hydrogen rocket, but the company went bankrupt in 2017. XCOR's assets were sold to the nonprofit organization Build A Plane, which focused on education, not suborbital flight.

As for Maseko, there's no evidence that Axe or XCOR ever made plans to get him or any other winners onto another spaceplane. It seems the whole thing was just a pipe dream from the days when private spaceflight seemed just around the corner. Still, Maseko inspired a nation with his dream and that touched many lives. Who knows? The true first black South African in space could be in training right now.

*Maseko wasn't going to be the first South African in space, but the first black South African.
In 2002, Mark Shuttleworth (a South African white entrepreneur and philanthropist) bought a seat on a Russian Soyuz capsule and spent eight days on board the international space station. 

[Via CNN]

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