- Mandla Maseko was set on making history by being the first person from the continent to make it to space.
- The 30-year-old pilot got closer to achieving his goal when he beat 1 million people back in 2013 to win a seat on an hour-long trip to space.
- A tragic motorbike accident has put an end to this dream.
Mandla Maseko has passed away before he could accomplish his dream of becoming the first African to travel into space.
The South African pilot, nicknamed 'Afronaut' and 'Spaceboy', was killed in a tragic motorbike accident.
News24 reports that he was hit by a car while riding his motorcycle on Saturday, July 6, 2019.
His business manager and close friend Sthembile Shabangu confirmed his death saying, "He was a larger than life figure. We are all still reeling at the moment. We are very distraught because most people only found out this morning. It is still very hard, painful and tragic."
Despite not achieving his dream, Shabangu believes that Maseko would still want people to have faith that they can do anything.
"There were still rocket tests happening before they could go up. He really thought that if he went up to space he could inspire young African children that they could do anything. He used to always say that the sky was no longer the limit. He put a lot of people first and was an ambitious person with big dreams," she added.
From humble beginnings to being an "Afronaut"
His dream to become the first African in space started after he had to abandon his civil engineering studies at the Tshwane University of Technology. He was stuck at home when he came acros an online contest launched by AXE Apollo Space Academy.
In his words, "I saw the ad on TV. You had to go online and enter your details to get people to vote for you. I heard nothing and gave up hope of ever winning."
He decided to try again after hearing the same ad on the radio. This time around, he received a call from Metro FM DJ T-bo Touch.
Asked why he wanted to go to space, Maseko said, "I want to defy the laws of gravity. And possibly go down in history as the first black South African in space."
This answer landed him on the top 30 South African shortlist. They were all taken to a space camp where they went through rigorous challenges.
The top 30 were later reduced to six and eventually just three. These three, including Maseko, were taken to the Global Space Camp in Orlando, Florida.
"I was just excited about going to the US because it was my first time travelling outside of South Africa. It was after two days at Nasa that it hit me that I was actually worthy of being there," he said.
There, he competed with one million people (over 100 contestants from more than 60 countries) in a week-long challenge filled with aptitude tests. He became one of the 23 candidates to qualify to go into space on December 5, 2013. He qualified three hours after learning that Nelson Mandela had died.
Becoming the first African set to travel to space, he said, "Winning this was a deep moment for me. Mandela passed on and three hours later I won the competition. It was like he was passing on the torch to me, saying, 'go out there and be the one who brings about hope and change in Africa'. That's how I look at it. Not many children from the township would even think of entering a competition that takes people to space. But I went for it. I saw it as an opportunity to change Africa and to give hope to young kids."
Upon winning the competition, he became famous and was regarded as a source of national pride. Many congratulated him for putting South Africa and the continent on the "galactic map".
Maseko travelled around the country telling young people that "the sky is not the limit". He went on to become a private pilot and a corporal with the South African National Defence Force (SANDF). He was also an avid biker with the Tshwane Legend Bikers and a part-time DJ.
Three years ago, he had the science building at the Curtis Nkondo School of Specialisation named after him. He was honoured by the Gauteng Department of Education for working hard to inspire many African children to pursue careers in science.
Maseko had been originally scheduled to fly in 2015 but there were no concrete plans at the time of his death.
Space.com reports that he never got to go to space because the company organizing the flight, XCOR Aerospace, went bankrupt in 2017.