The First African in Space was not just about South African Afronaut Mark Shuttleworth. It was about harnessing this historical event to work for the greater good in South Africa. As part of this mission Interactive Africa conceived of a project that would, together with publicizing Shuttleworth’s mission, provide local scientists with the opportunity to perform experiments in unique microgravity conditions, usually only found in space.
Shuttleworth conducted several experiments during his 10-day space flight in 2002. One experiment was the very first in the world to assess the impact of zero-gravity on the development of stem cells and embryos. Another was to determine the effect of microgravity on the cardiovascular system and muscles. A third was an attempt to crystallise HIV proteins in weightlessness in the hopes that, when X-rayed, they will give an accurate view of the virus structure. These experiments are being managed by world-class South African scientists from the Universities of Cape Town, Stellenbosch and Port Elizabeth, in collaboration with Russian space-science experts.
Apart from overall project management, Interactive Africa had two teams based in Moscow and Houston. With this project Interactive Africa, like Shuttleworth, managed to do something that nobody had done before; run what was, in effect, a space agency.