Raising hell, raising scientists


Put away the iPad. 
Play. Break stuff. Get into trouble.

Put away the iPad. 
Play. Break stuff. Get into trouble.

That’s the advice that Professor William Edmonson has for young children who think one day they might want to send stuff into space – or explore other aspects of science, technology and engineering. 

Edmonson is SP Langley Distinguished Professor at the US National Institute of Aerospace (NIA) and University of North Carolina A&T State University and his field is small satellites – CubeSats. 

These are mini-satellites for space research which are either launched from the International Space Station (“The guy just kind of stands there and throws it, like this,” Edmonson said during his lecture) or which piggyback on other launches.

A standard CubeSat unit is just 10x10x11.35cm and weighs just over a kilogram.

The point of CubeSats, Edmonson explains, is that they provide a cheaper way to develop the next generation of space engineers. 

“In South Africa, there’s a big push for human capacity development. This is a way to develop your own space industry without having to spend billions of dollars.”

Google searches average the number of operating satellites in orbit in space at around 2 700, and inoperational ones at around 1 000.

How is that not too much junk?

“There used to be only two space-faring nations, the US and Russia,” Edmonson said. “Now a lot of developing countries are producing satellites. Nigeria and Mexico have space agencies, as well as Peru, South Africa, Malaysia – and then China, which is launching a lot of objects into space.

“So yes, it is becoming an issue, and there are people tracking the satellites [International Telecommunication Union] and hopefully ensuring that nothing runs into anything else.

But the other thing to remember is that there’s lots of space out there – literally. The distance between one object and another could be tens of thousands of kilometres.

With increasing numbers of satellites being launched, is privacy a thing of the past?

“It’s true that more and more countries are involved,” Edmonson said. “But I don’t think [surveillance]is in the mindset of the developing countries with satellite programmes. It’s more about scientific advancement, and building human capacity.”

After his lecture, Grocott’s Mail asked Edmonson what his advice would be for parents who want to raise children who act and think in ways that are inventive.

“First, no fear,” he said. “You have to believe that you [your child]are capable.

“Then, from my personal story, it’s being able to play – but the kind of playing that involves trying to understand how objects and things work.

“And you know – breaking a few things – because you learn from that. The parents might not like it – but I think there’s a lot of value in breaking stuff.

“Also to provide an environment for [children and]students to be free thinkers. For them to play intellectually – particularly in the 3-D world, not on PlayStations and Gameboys and iPads.

“Young kids need to actually play with blocks and trees, dirt and cars – and build, try to create things.”

Edmonson didn’t have Lego, he said, but an Erector set – “you know – with screws and nuts and pieces of metal.

“Then I progressed to helping fix cars, washing machines. Before I got to undergrad I was building my own stereo."

So being helpful got him quite a long way?

“Yes. It got me into trouble every now and again, but that’s part of growing up. 

“I don’t know if I should say this, but children should get into trouble.

"It’s good for them, as long as it’s not catastrophic.”

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