Overnight, Mandla Maseko went from an unknown DJ from a township to a media sensation making history as the first black African to go to space. Even he’s surprised.
“I remember years back, I think a year or two, I Googled myself and only found one picture on the third page of results. Now, when I Google myself, I’m on the first page,” says Maseko.
Maseko grew up in Mabopane, in the Soshanguve township, north of Pretoria. As a young boy, he enjoyed space films like Armageddon and Apollo 13. But the idea of one day becoming an astronaut was unimaginable. He dreamt of being a lawyer or a policeman.
“We were not brought up to think that we could be bigger than big. But I always knew that I was destined for greater things.”
After high school, Maseko studied civil engineering at university but dropped out because of financial difficulties. He then had a line of temporary jobs including a dead-end sales job where he earned R10 ($1) an hour.
“I said to them, ‘Guys this is how much I spend a day and this is how much I’m getting a day. So if you look at it, I’m not really earning anything’… Then I quit.”
While at home, lounging on the couch and listening to the radio, the unemployed Maseko heard about the opportunity of a lifetime. Axe Apollo Space Academy was giving 23 people a free trip to space. Step one in the process was to send a picture of yourself jumping off from anywhere. Maseko sent an image of himself jumping off a wall at his house. He originally wanted to jump off the roof, but his mother did not like that idea.
The picture secured a call from the judges, who asked why the 25 year old wanted to go to space.
“I want to defy the laws of gravity. And possibly go down in history as the first black South African in space.”
Maseko, along with 29 other contestants, made it to the next round of the competition which was held in Parys, a town in the Free State province of South Africa. The contestants were faced with a number of challenges, including the infamous vomit comet.
“You stand up against the wall, the walls start spinning and then the floor disappears. So you’re standing on the edge, being pushed by the G-force up against the wall. The challenge was to push yourself up against the G-force and pick up five flags beneath your feet and put them above your head, one by one.”
The second challenge involved skydiving 10,000 feet above the ground then dropping sandbags on targets while plummeting. The final six contestants were put into an air combat jet that spun and flipped around.
“They wanted to see if you were going to vomit or pass out. Immediately after getting off, we had to write a test… I was fine. I’m a typical township boy. We don’t vomit in such challenges,” says Maseko with a chuckle.
The last leg of the competition was held at the Global Space Camp in Orlando, Florida in the Unites States. Maseko was one of three South Africans representing his country. He felt like a tiny star in the galaxy when he found out that there were 109 contestants representing 75 countries, all fighting for the same dream.
The week’s tasks included G-force, an obstacle course, target shooting, a zipline, air combat flight and zero gravity flight.
“We were divided into groups and we had to construct a rocket. My group wasn’t successful but we had team spirit… Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, was looking for three qualities: bravery, enthusiasm and teamwork.”
That night they had a graduation ceremony where all 109 contestants received a certificate of completion. Then, the big announcement that changed 23 lives forever.
“They called the first guy and I was at the back taking pictures, thinking to myself that they will call a South Africa way later, like the 10th or the 11th person. To my surprise, after calling the first guy they call my name. I was holding an iPad taking pictures, thinking, ‘Wow, really! God is now showing off.’”
The victory was bittersweet. Three hours prior to the announcement, the news of Nelson Mandela’s passing had made world headlines. He was one of Maseko’s childhood heroes.
“It felt like Mandela was like ‘I’ve run the race and I’ve completed the course, now here’s the torch Mandla. Go as a young South African and fire up the youth. Run this course and take it to new heights.’ And in my case take it to space.”
Across the world, media was abuzz as countries celebrated their new space champions. Maseko and the organizers decided to keep the good news a secret for two weeks while the nation mourned their hero.
“He broke new ground as the first black president of South Africa and I wanted my name to resonate in the same light as his. In years to come, they’ll ask who the first black president was and they will say Mandela and they will ask who the first black South African in space was and my name will come. Even if I become a quarter of what he was, it’ll be fine.”
Weeks later, South Africans would hear the news of Maseko and everyone wanted a piece of him. He was noticed on the streets, his picture was splashed across the front pages of newspapers and he became a regular on radio. For Maseko, his big moment came when he was invited to President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation address and was even mentioned in the speech.
Although the mission into space is in late 2015, Maseko often dreams of his first moments in space.
“I see myself at the moment where we are sub-orbiting and I see the huge blue and white round ball that is called Earth. If I get to make a call, I will call the president. I’ll sing his song ‘Umshini wami’ (a Zulu struggle song). It won’t be a dull moment,” he says.
After space, Maseko wants to study towards becoming an astronaut. He wants to give back to South Africa and continue to inspire youth to reach for their dreams. But ultimately he wants to fly back to the United States and go on another mission into space where he dreams of placing the South African flag on the moon.
A dream too far? I don’t think so, after all he’s already going to space.
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