Amateur-rocket makers launch Nigeria into space

Amateur rocket-makers in Nigeria

By Odimegwu Onwumere

Gideon Emenike and Chibuisi Nwafor were aged between 16 and 17 years when in 2013 they launched a rocket they’d made into space. Thrity minutes and five kilometres later, it crashed into the plot of Augustine Eke, a retiree.

The clatter of the crashed rocket was deafening. Their feat flustered their rural community of Umuchima Ubaha, Okigwe LGA, Imo State and by extension, the country. Then state Police Commissioner, Mohammed Katsina first suspected terrorism, and residents thought it was a bomb.

When CP Katsina got to the site and found that the cause was not terrorists, he portrayed the children’s exploit as “markedly wild.” However, he said, “It was an exercise into the world of science and technology by some adventurous, skillful, and intelligent young boys with incredible creativity.”

Leaving secondary school in 2012, Gideon first built a helicopter when he was in SS1, at Federal Government College, Okigwe, Imo State, as a school project. While neglected due to the fact that he was not a son of a bourgeoisie, he did not faulter, but entered a national competition in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, when he was in SS2, with a rocket he built. He came second, and the Society for Science and Technology also adjudicated him second in their competition.

He was told that he would be representing Nigeria in Brazil, after he won the second position at an Olympiad competition. But as he was neither a son of a senator nor a son of a governor, it was a botched recommendation. Gideon, who met later with Chibuisi Nwafor when they built the rocket, was confused about the Brazil cancellation.

He said, “I still don’t know why the principal cancelled the trip. This frustrated me somehow, but later I picked up from where I dropped, and started again. That was how we planned to build a rocket and a satellite, and send it into space. It was an amateur satellite.”

Wasting talents

When CP Katsina found out that the rocket was fabricated from simple elements such as sugar and computer accessories, he said the boys were wonderful. Comfort Obi, the Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of *The Source*, a weekly Newsmagazine, pointed out, “There are many Gideons and Chibuisis in Nigeria: Young people with raw talents and a burning zeal to be of use to their country. But nobody cares. If these teenagers were armed robbers, kidnappers, thugs, cultists, assassins or terrorists, somebody would have taken note.”

In March 2011, 28-year-old Shehu Saleh Balami, who took interest in rockets when he was a kid, launched solid-fuel rockets – J03 and J04. The ‘J’, he said, stood for his mother’s name Jummai, because of her contributions and encouragement towards the realisation of his dream. Balami launched the rockets he produced with 100 percent local content at an estimated cost of N30, 000 each, in Kaduna. Conversely, the rockets did not reach the height he had envisaged.

Said Balami, “The rockets I launched did not reach the calculated height of 1.3km, it could be from the potassium nitrate, which I suspected might have been adulterated, because I did not change the mixture I used for the previous ones that flew well.”

“Our aim is to create awareness on the practical application of what is learnt in school for the development of the society. Our group started from the university when, we delivered lectures to students on science and technology from jet and, rocket engines to electric circuit. The name of the group in school was Passion for the Application of Engineering and Technological research Information (PAETRI),”

Balami is a graduate of Mechanical Engineering from the Federal University of Technology (FUT) Minna. He began his researches when he made a remote-controlled aircraft. That was after his first project was aided by his friends, under the auspices of Movement for the Propagation of Science and Technology in Nigeria.

The same song of sorrow

Nigeria’s real interest in space technology began in 1996, when a national remote sensing centre was established in Jos, in the middle of the country. The space programme, however, got a major boost in May 1999, when Olusegun Obasanjo, upon being sworn in as president, set up NSRDA with Boroffice as its first chief executive. .

By October 1, 2013, the Chairman of Centre for Creative Scientists in Niger Delta (CENSINDA), Mr. Ayebanua Keniyinbo Apollos, a talented 43-year-old graduate of Chemistry from the Rivers State University of Science and Technology (RUST) Port Harcourt, Rivers State, said the President Goodluck Jonathan Space Centre in Ayama-Ijaw in Southern Ijaw, Bayelsa State, was geared towards launching its rocket and Ifieye (It’s time) satellite – a scouting satellite powered by solar energy – into space by May 2014.

By contrast with Balami, whose rockets cost just N30,000 each to build, Apollos said the local content for his project, which was 100 percent, was at an approximate cost of N100,000 each, with the satellite placed in an elliptical orbit of 3800 km, and would remain in space for a year.

However, both Balami and Apollos now sing the same song of sorrow. Says Balami, “If the government pays attention to local science and technology inventors and supports them financially, I believe very strongly that one day, we will be able to build our own satellite or the engine that will take the satellite into space.”

Apollos chorused, “If both the state and federal governments pay attention to local science and technology inventors and support them financially, I believe very strongly that one day, we will be able to build our own satellite or the engine that will take the satellite into space.”

Nigerian government prefers foreign scientists

“Gideon, Chibuisi, Balami and Apollos represent the many wasted, technology-savvy minds in Nigeria, yet the country is looking to foreign intervention to help it launch into orbit by 2030. While the children achieved their accomplishments unaided by any individual, group or government, it may take Nigeria as a federation 15 years from now to launch its first astronaut into space,” Minister of Science and Technology, Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu said, while speaking to a commission from the Defence Space Agency in Abuja on March 24th 2016.

Yet Nigeria, neglecting her local engineers and technologists, was set to launch its own rocket into space, after the successful launch of SAT- 2 and SAT- X to the orbit on August 17 2011. The disclosure was made during a visit by a nine-man delegation from the Nigerian Institute of Physics, led by its national president, Professor Emeka Okwueze in that year, to then Minister of Science and Technology, Professor Ita Okon Bassey Ewa.

While Dr. Onu is looking to 2030 when the country hopes to launch astronauts into space, it seems Nigeria has neglected its existing work. Scientists in Lagos State alone, the Centre For Space Transport And Propulsion (CSTP), Epe, have been, without international assistance, building and launching tentative rockets, said a Coordinator of the Centre, Mr. Oluremi A. Fashade. What Nigeria does is to employ the service of foreigners to launch rockets without giving a hoot about local manufacturers and local content. A-case-in-study was on December 19 2011, when a considerable Nigerian communications satellite was launched by China.

This satellite, it was planned, would connect Africans with television programming, education services and navigation signals. It was built by the China Academy of Space Technology. The satellite is known as Nigcomsat 1R, believed to provide optimal and cost effective voice, data, video, internet and application-service solutions; and would be operated by Nigcomsat Ltd., a company contracted by the Nigerian government, for up to 15 years.

“Nigeria after 50 years of independence still relies on advanced countries for satellites due to the lack of an atmosphere that helps indigenous talented inventors to thrive. There is a need for the Federal Government to provide an enabling environment for science and technology inventors in the country if it wishes to attain the desired Vision 20:2020,” Balami bewailed.

The UN in December 2009 tasked Nigeria with taking the Nigerian national space policy programme, which was on course, more seriously. Space research and development activities can be seen as part of a valid strategy for sustainable national development.


Odimegwu Onwumere is a Rivers State based poet, writer and consultant and winner, in the digital category, Nordica Media Merits Awards 2016. Tel: +2348057778358. Email:

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